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Killing One's Abuser: Homicide or Self-Defense?

New law helps victims of domestic violence when they become the accused.

 Brett Sayles/Pexels
Source: Brett Sayles/Pexels

“Why didn’t she just leave?” This is stated many times by the prosecutor in a court case of a New York woman who believed her partner’s severe abuse would not end until he was dead.

The statement is tantamount to blaming her for staying in an abusive relationship without any recognition whatsoever of the danger she faces in leaving.

Under a new law, the killing of an abusive partner to end horrific ongoing abuse will now be considered as to whether it’s an act of self-defense that takes into account the danger of leaving an abusive relationship.

Recognizing survivors of severe abuse with compassion.

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) in the state of New York shows understanding and compassion for domestic violence survivors. It can allow a reduced sentence between 5 and 15 years when domestic violence is proven to have contributed to the crime.

In a recent New Yorker article (Snyder, R.L.), “When Can a Woman Who Kills Her Abuser Claim Self-Defense?” the author recounts the story of a murder case in New York state where a severely-abused woman shot her partner. In the court proceedings, one point made by the prosecutor is that she did not pull the trigger while she was under attack. The jury found her guilty of the most severe charges she could have gotten—second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a handgun. With these charges, she faces 25 years to life in prison unless the judge applies the DVSJA.

The new law allows the accused a chance to be seen and understood in the context of their ongoing abusive circumstance that allows their action to be recognized as “reasonable.”

The woman in the New York case has a life-shattering abusive history with her partner that included physical violence, marital rapes, burns to parts of her body including genitalia, sexual assault with a gun, and strangulation. Under the new law, her history of abuse can now be taken into consideration by the judge during the sentencing. The law recognizes, given what she went through and with reason to expect the abuse would continue, her criminal act can be seen as self-defense. Her sentencing will take place next month.

Proving a history of domestic violence.

DVSJA signifies a growing recognition of intimate partner abuse and the deleterious impact on victims who become the accused. The law allows taking into account the accused’s history of physical abuse, the lack of other options, and the danger of leaving.

Proving a history of domestic violence can be challenging. Many survivors choose not to report abuse out of fear of retaliation from their abuser for themselves or their children. Also, it is terrifying to them as to whether they will be believed over their abuser; and if not, they remain unprotected. And when an abuser is seen in the community as charming and likable, it's all the more likely to feel no one will believe them. Or, in their defense, the abuser twists the truth, stating that their partner is the abuser or the injuries are self-inflicted. When it comes down to “he said, she said,” her credibility might waver as to her actual abuse history, leaving her without help.

For these reasons and others, the accused might have chosen not to report their abuse. The new law takes into account whether the accused believed that they had no other options.

“If it was as bad as she says it is, why didn’t she just leave?”

Too often prosecutorial reasoning becomes an accusation of the victim. But it is not always obvious that leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous. Like the woman in the NY case, we have ample data that shows when a victim who has been physically attacked and threatened with homicide, and whose partner owns a gun, is at high risk for homicide if she tries to leave the relationship.

The misinformed belief that accompanies the statement, “Why didn’t she just leave?” implies a safe solution when it’s actually the opposite—a step toward greater danger. When we see someone who didn’t leave a horrific abusive relationship, we need to see the question as a testimony to the abuse the person has endured and a reflection of entrapment and traumatization.

When determining a crime by a victim of domestic violence as to whether it was an act of violence or self-defense, the legal system is now allowing the accused to defend themselves by speaking aloud their history of severe abuse and reasons they did not leave their abuser—perhaps speaking for the first time without fear of retaliation.

Hopefully, the understanding and compassion reflected in the new law for the accused with a history of being abused just might help more victims, in general, believe that their abuse will be taken seriously.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).