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Are spouse killers “wicked” or  “stressed”?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016
posted by Rita Handrich

murder-method-by-genderWhile it may be 2016, there are still some judges who view women and men differently even when they commit the same offense. When it comes to killing your spouse—apparently, the difference lies in the gender of the defendant.

Australian researchers looked at the sentencing remarks from nine different judges from trials involving men killing their spouses, and they looked at five trials with women killing their spouses. Sentencing remarks are those statements made by the judge to explain sentences assigned to the defendants who had been convicted of murdering their spouse. The researchers do not identify the gender of the judges but as our fellow bloggers over at BPS Research Digest comment—“the accounts include plenty of references to “His Honor” but none to “Her Honor”.

Ultimately, with male defendants, judges often talked about the man’s character and testimony from employers or community members. They emphasized the man’s suffering and emotional state, and referred to (in those cases where relevant) the anguish, distress, and depression the man suffered when his spouse left him. In one case, the judge blamed the spouse-victim for the conflict (as in, “she started it”)—while the male defendant ended the conflict permanently and violently.

Conversely, with female defendants, judges focused on negative references to the woman’s character (such as being indebted and unable to meet expenses, or being uncaring as to the effect of her actions on her children). Such character concerns were not raised when the defendant was male. Further, some judges described the victim-husband as being a “good provider” or being “honest and hard-working”. In 3 of the 5 cases with a female defendant, the sentencing judge used the word “wickedness” (e.g., “your wickedness knew no bounds”; it is hard to think of a more callous, heartless, wicked person”; “you chose a horrendous method indeed to carry out this wicked crime”).

The researchers comment that these judges see “good men” who kill because of their (now dead) spouses being conflict-initiators (provocateurs) while women who kill their spouses are “wickedly calculating” and sentencing should send a message to prevent other women from getting the same idea. In other words, these things happen when it comes to good men murdering their difficult wives (who likely brought their demise upon themselves). However, when the defendant is female, it is unthinkably wicked, and the sentencing must be harsh to keep other women from getting the same idea.

The authors conclude with this comment, “Females received substantially longer sentences in these cases than their male counterparts. This study also demonstrated that judges expressed more exculpatory remarks for the male offenders while making damning, indeed vilifying statements about the female offenders.”

Obviously, this is an anecdotal study with a small sample size, and no statistical conclusions can be drawn from it. With that said, from a litigation advocacy perspective, it is clear (especially if you are in Australia) that we need continued focus on gender issues in sentencing and on how bias (whether we are attorney, party, defendant, juror or judge) creeps into our thoughts about the crime committed and the gender of the defendant.

Hall, G., Whittle, M., & Field, C. (2015). Themes in Judges’ Sentencing Remarks for Male and Female Domestic Murderers. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 23 (3), 395-412 DOI: 10.1080/13218719.2015.1080142

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