Gender Bias in the Courts — and in The Washington Post

For a glaring example of gender bias in the courts (and the media), you need look no further than The Washington Post story today by Tamara Jones, in which she commiserates with convicted felon Teressa Turner-Schaefer, who spent a mere 11 months in jail for killing her husband after an argument.

Now Turner-Schaefer gets to collect $400,000 in life insurance for killing her husband. In a plea bargain, she pleaded guilty to the crime of involuntary manslaughter, which, amazingly enough, doesn’t bar you from collecting life insurance taken out on the person you killed.

It’s not surprising that the prosecutors let her plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, even if they thought she deliberately murdered her husband. Prosecutions of wives for killing their husbands are among the most difficult for prosecutors to bring, since judges and juries invariably assume that the victim must have done something to deserve it, even if the victim was blameless.

Even when a prosecutor succeeds in obtaining a conviction, penalties are often slight. (I wrote earlier in the Post about Mary Winkler, the Tennessee woman who served only two months in jail after her conviction for killing her preacher husband).

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics’ study of large urban counties found that wives who kill their husbands without provocation receive an average sentence of just six to seven years, while husbands who kill their wives receive a much more reasonable average sentence of 17 years.

And getting a conviction is quite difficult, since even the killing of a small, physically harmless man is often defended on the ground that his wife was suffering from “battered woman syndrome.”

“Battered woman syndrome” is a concept popularized by Lenore Walker, who was later exposed by the Post‘s Ken Ringle for falsely claiming that watching the Super Bowl results in men beating their wives more. Walker defines “battered woman syndrome” so broadly that mere verbal abuse or quarreling qualifies. Despite being exposed for the Super Bowl hoax, Walker has been cited hundreds of times in judicial opinions.

Last year, in In re Nourn, 52 Cal.Rptr.3d 31 (2006), the California Court of Appeal cited the “battered woman syndrome” concept to overturn a woman’s conviction for getting her abusive lover to kill an innocent third party, whom the woman accused of sexual impropriety in order to curry favor with her abuser. The “abuse excuse” thus claimed a victim who no one even alleged was abusive. (The California Supreme Court ordered that this controversial decision be stripped of any precedential value, but refused to review it or uphold the conviction).

It is easy for a female defendant to find a “rent-a-shrink” willing to testify that the husband she killed was a batterer — even if she in fact dominated and abused him, not vice versa. (The Bureau of Justice Statistics says that 1.5 million women and 800,000 men are physically battered every year). Such testimony for hire is admissible, while the testimony of the slain man’s family that he was the victim is not.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, in an opinion by Judge Diana Motz (who was later appointed to the federal appeals court), held in Banks v. State, 608 A.2d 1249 (1992), that a man’s family were not allowed to testify that he was in fear for his life of the wife who later killed him, and expressed such fear to them repeatedly. The court said his out-of-court statements were inadmissible hearsay. Yet an “expert” who never met the man was permitted to testify about battered women’s syndrome in that very same case, depicting him a negative light.

By contrast, similarly relevant out-of-court statements about female victims are not so rigidly excluded. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, permitted diary entries about abuse of a female victim to be admitted at her husband’s murder trial in Parle v. Runnels, 387 F.3d 1030 (2004).

The courts can be quite indulgent even when it is clear that a woman has deliberately attempted to kill her husband. In another case, U.S. v. Working, 224 F.3d 1093 (2001), the Ninth Circuit held that federal trial judge Jack Tanner (whom the Ninth Circuit later admitted was gender-biased against male victims) had the power to reduce a woman’s sentence for deliberately maiming, and attempting to kill, her ex-husband (Tanner sentenced her to just one day in jail) because he had supposedly disturbed her emotionally by seeking custody of their kids. It is hard to imagine a court reducing a man’s sentence for maiming his ex-wife on the grounds that she had the temerity to seek custody of their children. Such a man would rightly receive a long prison sentence, and no sympathy from the press.