Battered Justice Syndrome

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Crime

Lynn Herndon Kent was asleep in bed four years ago when her husband Lamar put a pistol to the back of her head and blew her brains out. Shortly before, he had taken a life insurance policy out on her. Now, with her blood soaking into the pillow, he called a friend to have him hide the gun, then called the police and explained tearfully that Lynn had been killed in a robbery.

They didn’t buy it, Kent confessed, and a judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison and 15 on probation. But now Kent is free, because Florida Governor Lawton Chiles has granted him clemency.

Are you outraged that such a thing could happen so soon after the Simpson murder? Would you be less so were you to find out the names were switched, and that it was Lynn who did the killing and Lamar who did the dying?

Yes, it was that which made the difference. Kent was released along with two other murdering women. One had an argument with her live-in boyfriend, left the scene, returned and shot him dead. The other was an 18-year-old who killed her stepfather by shooting him in the back after luring him out in the country.

A year before, Governor Chiles, and a clemency board which he set up in 1993 exclusively to evaluate the cases of women who claimed abuse led them to murder, ordered two other releases. This included Kimberly Soubielle who also killed her husband as he slept.

Assuming all these women had been physically abused — and for some there was corroborative evidence of this, while for others there was not — none of them were in immediate danger of life or limb, thus none could resort to the recognized legal protection of self-defense. Their crimes were pre-meditated, what used to be called "in cold blood".

They are free today because they suffered from something called "battered woman syndrome." Which is? "From everything I’ve read," says Cathy Young, vice president of the Women’s Freedom Network in Washington, D.C. "it sounds more like an ideological concoction to justify acts that would not fall under the category of self-defense."

But couldn’t these women have just walked away? Well, physically, yes. "The theory," explains Young, is that due to repeated battering, "the victim becomes completely passive. It’s an interesting sort of reasoning because it assumes the woman is so passive she can’t leave a relationship, but she’s not too passive to kill." So battered woman syndrome equals insanity, right? Uh, no, insanity has long been recognized as a defense by courts. These women were all sane.

"Basically," says Young, "it seems like a grab bag of justifications that can be used to justify just about anything."

The feminist view of husbands.

In October, feminists went ballistic after a Maryland judge gave a mere 18-month prison sentence to Kenneth Peacock, who upon finding his wife in bed with another man, soothed his ruffled feathers by shooting her to death. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Anna Quindlen warned her female readers: "The moment you say ’I do’ the value of your life on the open judicial market plummets," citing Mr. Peacock’s "classic Drove-Me-to-It defense."

The Peacock sentencing was a single outrageous act. But there are no states that have clemency boards set up exclusively to systematically review cases of men who murder their wives, just the other way around. Yet if anything, women who kill their husbands get a better break from judges than do men who kill their wives.

A recent Justice Department analysis found that nearly 13 percent of wives accused of killing husbands were acquitted, compared with 1.4 percent of husbands accused of killing their wives. Of those convicted, 16 percent of the women had received probation instead of prison, ten times the rate for men. The average prison sentence for the homicidal wife was six years, compared to 17 for the husband.

There have also been no mass pardons of wife killers as there have been with husband killers in both Ohio and Maryland. One of the Maryland women freed had hired a hit man and collected on her husband’s insurance policy. The Columbus, Ohio Dispatch reported that of the 25 women pardoned by outgoing Governor Richard Celeste in 1990, 15 said they had not been physically abused.

Six had discussed killing their husbands beforehand, and two had even tracked down their estranged spouses to kill them. Battered woman syndrome is simply a sign of the times. In a nation of victims, everything can be justified on the basis of claiming abuse of some sort.

The Menendez bothers claim their parents abused them, so instead of leaving home they shotgunned them to death. Jamaican immigrant Colin Ferguson believes American society is racist, so he shoots up a subway car of whites and Asians in an expression of "black rage." Texan Daimon Osby guns down two unarmed members of his own race. He can’t help it, you see; he suffers from "urban survival syndrome."

Now we hear that a 350-pound woman shot her husband to death because he threatened to either leave her or put her in a nursing home unless she lost weight. Presumably her lawyer will argue that she suffered a combination of mental battering and fat genes.

Yet there are those who have successively argued that what’s fair for the goose . . .

In March, a Los Angeles jury found a man guilty of a charge less than murder because it bought his story that he bludgeoned his wife to death only after years of psychological abuse and only because his religion forbade leaving her.

Deputy District Attorney Kathleen Cady, who prosecuted that case, says "Every single murderer has a reason why they killed someone. I think it sends a very frightening message to the rest of society that all you have to do is come up with some kind of excuse when you commit a crime."

We got your message, Governor Chiles, loud and clear.