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Convicted Survivors

The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill

Elizabeth Dermody Leonard

Publication Year: 2002

When a woman survives a deadly assault by her male abuser by using lethal self-defense, she often faces a punitive criminal justice system—one that largely failed to respond to her earlier calls for help. In this book, Elizabeth Dermody Leonard examines the lives and experiences of more than forty women in California who are serving lengthy prison sentences for killing their male abusers. She contrasts them with other women prisoners in the state and finds substantial differences. Leonard’s in-depth interviews reveal that the women are slow to identify themselves as battered women and continue to minimize the violence done to them, make numerous and varied attempts to end abusive relationships, and are systematically failed by the systems they look to for help. While in jail, these women receive liberal dosages of psychotropic drugs, damaging their ability to aid in their self-defense. Moreover, trials and plea bargains feature little or no evidence of the severe intimate abuse inflicted upon them. Despite a clear lack of criminal or violent histories, the majority of women found guilty of the death of abusive men receive first- or second-degree murder convictions and serve long, harsh sentences. Leonard concludes the book with a discussion of policy implications and recommendations arising from this research.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Front matter

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiii

I have worked in the domestic violence field full time since 1981. I have interviewed hundreds of battered women, represented many of them in court, testified as an expert witness, taught Domestic Violence Law at Boalt Hall School of Law (UC Berkeley) since 1988, published the first textbook on this subject (Lemon 1996 and 2001),...

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pp. xv-xvi

I wish to thank, first of all, the women prisoners whose participation made this research possible. I am indebted to Convicted Women Against Abuse, a prisoner-led support group for battered women that opened their meetings and their hearts to me. The generosity and openness of all these women contributed to my understanding of...

Part I

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Chapter 1. Introduction

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pp. 3-11

Violence against women is a pervasive social problem of extraordinary proportions in the United States. For women, home is a place of greater danger than public places—more dangerous than the workplace, more dangerous than the highway, more dangerous than city streets. However much we would like to picture intimate relationships...

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Chapter 2. Battered Women Who Kill and the Criminal Justice System: A Review of the Literature

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pp. 13-38

Throughout much of known human history, traditions and laws relating to marriage have given husbands the right to control their wives, by force if necessary. Napoleon decreed that women must be legal minors their entire lives (Davidson 1977). English jurist and politician Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634) captured the philosophy of...

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Chapter 3. Explaining Intimate Violence: Theoretical and Methodological Framework

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pp. 39-48

Despite such gender neutral terms as “domestic violence,” “family violence,” “partner abuse,” and “spouse abuse,” hospital records, law enforcement reports, court proceedings, victim surveys, and the historical record consistently show that violence between intimate partners is primarily and essentially the violence of men against women....

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Chapter 4. Study Format and Design

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pp. 49-55

No one knows how many women serve prison sentences for the death of their abusive male partners. A large part of the problem is that not all criminal justice systems collect systematic data on victim- offender relationships in homicide cases. The inmate correctional files of battered women often do not contain data on abusive...

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Chapter 5. A Profile of Convicted Survivors

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pp. 57-69

The United States of America incarcerates its citizens at alarmingly high rates. In 2000, the U.S. rate of incarceration (690 per 100,000) surpassed that of Russia (675 per 100,000), making it the world leader in imprisoning its citizens (The Sentencing Project 2001). The U.S. incarceration rate is at an all time high (The Sentencing...

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Part II: Narratives of Personal Experiences: An Introduction

The convicted survivors of intimate violence who form the core of the present study describe and interpret their lives by narrating them. As they responded to open-ended interview questions, women produced narrative accounts of their personal experiences from childhood to incarceration. Although the women did not report every...

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Chapter 6. Minimizing and Forgetting Violence

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pp. 73-77

Almost without fail, responses from the women reflect a nonobvious theme: women continue to minimize or forget the violence they suffered at the hands of their abusers. Practitioners and researchers note that forgetting abuse experiences is common among survivors. Kelly (1990) observes, “We forget experiences in order to cope with...

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Chapter 7. Self-Identifying as a Battered Woman

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pp. 79-83

As the interview process unfolded, I became aware that, had I sought out these cases a few years earlier, many of the respondents would have excluded themselves from the study. Along with minimizing or forgetting the violence, only a few considered themselves battered or abused women during the violent relationship and in the...

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Chapter 8. Police Involvement

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pp. 85-94

Law enforcement officials act as the first line of help for battered women, and as such, they are the gatekeepers to systemic response by prosecutors, judges, and social workers. Just how much family violence police actually see is not known, principally because “many officers still fail to define and record such incidents as crimes”...

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Chapter 9. Coercive Drugging

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pp. 95-101

For the overwhelming majority of the battered women defendants in this study, the homicide arrest was their first experience with interrogation, arraignment, and/or commitment to a county jail facility. Frightened, confused, and often traumatized from a recent beating and their own lethal actions, women report that confinement in...

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Chapter 10. Adjudication Processes

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pp. 103-114

When a battered woman uses deadly force against her abuser, a prosecutor has the option to not prosecute based on justification, or to indict her for criminal homicide. The law divides criminal homicide into two classes of offense, murder and manslaughter, each of which is further differentiated based on the person’s state of mind at...

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Chapter 11. Conclusion and Policy Implications

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pp. 115-128

Interviews with imprisoned women offer us unique insights into the lives of women convicted for the deaths of abusive men. Their articulate narratives convey fear, fatigue, frustration, and resignation. Their collective voice describes a series of events and interactions that produces in each woman a firm belief that the unavoidable conclusion to the violent relationship is death—hers, his, or both, and...

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Chapter 12. Portraits

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pp. 129-140

She was an eighteen-year-old single mother and he was twentyeight years her senior when their relationship began. She later learned he had been married twice before and she had been the oldest of his three brides. She now serves a sentence of twenty-five years to life for killing her husband....

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Appendix A: Informed Consent Statements

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pp. 141-144

My name is Elizabeth Leonard. I am a doctoral student in the Sociology program at the University of California, Riverside. I am interviewing women at CIW because I am interested in the experiences of women who are serving time for killing their abusive male partners. The purpose of my study is to learn what life was like for a woman in...

Appendix B: Survey Questionnaires

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pp. 145-170

Appendix C: Interview Guide

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pp. 171-174


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pp. 175-176


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pp. 177-194

Author Index

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pp. 195-198

Subject Index

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pp. 199-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780791488881
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791453278
Print-ISBN-10: 0791453278

Page Count: 218
Illustrations: 8 tables, 1 figure
Publication Year: 2002

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Abused women -- California.
  • Sex discrimination in criminal justice administration -- California.
  • Women prisoners -- California.
  • Female offenders -- California.
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