The myths our legal system buys into about perpetrators of domestic violence

The myths our legal system buys into about perpetrators of domestic violence thumbnail

One of the most persistent and dangerous myths of domestic violence is that the perpetrators are good men who made ONE bad choice because their wife pushed them too far. It’s a neat little way of excusing male violence and rather unsubtly hinting that the female victims were the problem all along.

A recent study into judiciary sentencing of domestic violence perpetrators shows this myth has an alarming level of acceptance at even the highest levels of our legal system. The study, published in the latest edition of Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, looked at judges’ sentencing remarks for cases of both men and women who had murdered their domestic partners between 2002 and 2010 in Victoria and New South Wales.

Researchers Guy Hall, Marion Whittle and Courtney Field examined a total of 72 cases. In 67 cases, the offender was male, while five cases involved female offenders. In all but two cases, the presiding judge was male.

The researchers found that when it came to sentencing male offenders, the judges went out of their way to present the murderers as essentially good blokes who had gone off the rails. For example, in sentencing remarks evaluating the offenders’ characters, the judges made frequent mention of the men’s involvement in the community and their work ethic.

“Your employer regards you as an outstanding employee and you were popular in the workplace. Your employer speaks highly of your work ethic,” said one judge.

Another offender was praised for his work with the Country Fire Authority and being “a good worker, a good provider and a contributor to community affairs.”

The judges in the sample set of cases also thought it important to note the “mitigating circumstances” for these men murdering their female partners. Poor educational outcomes, problematic relationships between the offenders and their fathers, and underdeveloped English language skills were all cited as contributing factors in the men’s behaviour.

What’s worse is that even after the men had been convicted of murdering their female partners, judges sought to blame the victim. As one judge put it, “Your wife was the source of the conflict.” In another example, the judge ruled that the offender’s culpability was lesser because of depression and anxiety “caused by his wife’s separation from him.”

In contrast, the judges were not nearly as understanding and sympathetic to women who had murdered their male domestic partners. The researchers’ analysis of the five cases where women were the offenders is succinct: “There were no positive evaluations of female offenders’ characters.”

The judges also opted against such nuance when it came to trying to put women’s killings into some kind of context. Unlike the male perpetrators, the judges didn’t bother delving into the women’s social disadvantage or relationships with their fathers. With women, judges preferred to be less social worker, more religious preacher, declaring the wickedness of women:

“It is hard to think of a more callous, heartless, wicked person.”

“Your wickedness knew no bounds.”

“You chose an horrendous method indeed to carry out this wicked crime.”

“You had no compassion, you were heartless.”

The researchers found no similar adverse evaluations of male offenders within their sample, and there was only one instance in which a judge – who happened to be a woman – made comments that painted the female offender’s behaviour in a more neutral light, by referring to the offender’s behaviour as resulting from a “substance abuse disorder”.

When the judges did elaborate on the female offenders’ circumstances and lifestyle, they seemed to focus on the women’s appearance and sexual behaviour.

As one judge remarked, “Soon after his death, you adopted a completely different lifestyle. You dyed your hair, wore revealing clothes and brought out into the open a friendship with Bobby Whyte, whom you later married.”

Given the differences in the portrayal of male and female offenders, it’s perhaps unsurprising that female offenders fared worse when it came to sentencing. The researchers note that all five cases involving women were in the top ten highest sentences of the sample, and that female offenders received two of the highest sentences – 36 years and 23 years.

The root causes of domestic violence are buried so deeply into our national psyche that even our judges, the people we pay to be impartial, appear to believe that men kill women for a complex range of psycho-social reasons – and because women bring it on themselves.

And women who kill men? Well, they’re just plain evil.

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