Justifiable Homicide

Battered Women, Self-Defense, and the Law

Cynthia K Gillespie



252 pp. 6x9

$34.95 paper 978-0-8142-5157-7
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“It is often painful reading, but Ms. Gillespie’s careful research, and her stirring accounts of justice gone wrong, make a strong case for rethinking the law of self-defense.” —The New York Times

“This is a study to set women’s blood boiling. Seattle attorney Gillespie details how unjust the judiciary is to battered women who kill their tormentors. She shows that the law of self-defense is adjudged by many courts not to apply to battered women. . . . Gillespie presents recommendations that should be read by all lawyers and judges” —Publishers Weekly

“Gillespie offers a compelling view about women who respond violently to abuse and about the criminal justice system, which follows such acts with its own form of abuse. . . . Her thesis, that the law of self-defense is a law for men and therefore constitutes sex discrimination, is clearly, coherently, and substantively articulated. . . . This is an important, intelligent, and challenging contribution in the area of women's studies, women’s rights, and the criminal justice system with respect to the law of self-defense” —Choice

“Valuable to the non-lawyer . . . . A cogent, readable argument with shocking examples suggesting that women’s lives are threatened not only sometimes by their men but by the courts as well.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Gillespie’s goal, it appears, was to produce an easily read, non-technical and persuasive overview of the legal problems facing women who fight back, and she has certainly accomplished it. Everything one needs for an introduction to issues of domestic violence is there: the shocking case studies, the history of self-defense law, the socialization of women into victims, the particular dynamics of battering.” —The Women’s Review of Books

The murder conviction of Caroline Scott, who shot her common-law husband as he was preparing to handcuff her and administer a possibly fatal beating, is an example of the injustice faced by women who kill male assailants in self-defense.

Although self-defense has always been considered justifiable under American law, entitling the killer to a complete acquittal, Cynthia Gillespie's study of over 300 cases shows that our society is remarkably reluctant to apply this doctrine to women. the law has evolved over centuries into a complex code of manly behavior designed to keep fist fights and brawls from escalating into lethal combat while preserving the right to kill in response to a clearly lethal assault. However, a woman’s situation is often entirely different.

Most women who kill violent husbands or lovers have been beaten and threatened with murder repeatedly and are facing another assault. Yet, however well she may recognize the need to take these threats seriously, a woman cannot legally defend herself until she is actually being beaten. And the fact that a man may inflict serious or lethal injury on a woman with his bare fists is not taken into consideration when a woman defends herself by using a weapon. Furthermore, if she decides not to retreat but to remain in the house and defend her children, a woman may well forfeit any legal right to defend herself.

We as a society are profoundly ambivalent about male violence against women, simultaneously deploring it and tolerating a great deal of it. We excuse such violence by blaming its victims, believing that women somehow provoke it or masochistically enjoy it; those women who defend themselves are viewed as either crazy or criminal. At every stage of the criminal justice system, a woman who has used deadly force to defend herself confronts these attitudes, which are particularly evident when she discovers that even the legal measure of a woman’s act in defending herself is whether she behaved the way that the jury thinks a reasonable man would have behaved in identical circumstances. The result is anything but justice.

Cynthia Gillespie is an attorney in the Seattle area and founder of the Northwest Women’s Law Center.