- Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts by Elizabeth A. Sheehy
Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts. Vancouver : UBC Press, 2014.
Defending Battered Women on Trial is a stunning achievement. Sheehy attends to the roles of institutional actors, legal processes, friends and families in constructing her argument that, even in the post-Lavallee era,1 Canadian law and society fail to protect women from violence. Women who kill to protect themselves from a battering partner too rarely “have access to a trial in which they can put to the jury the full context of their acts and receive the benefit of judicial instructions that relates the context in which they killed to the law” (9).
Sheehy’s methodology offers a model for rigorous socio-legal study. An enormous amount of careful research underlies this book. To choose the eleven case studies that form the heart of the book, Sheehy reviewed ninety-one cases in which women killed in the context of violence. She obtained transcripts and court records for thirty-six cases. This breadth of research permits Sheehy to offer observations about trends in charging, pleas, and conviction rates, to connect the experiences of individual women to other research in the field, and to fully illustrate the injustice that operates most keenly against Indigenous women. Sheehy’s research permits her to make persuasive quantitative claims while offering powerful narrative illustrations of the trends she identifies. The result is a book that grips and saddens the reader as Sheehy makes an overwhelming case for her argument that women—especially Indigenous women—are systematically denied access to the benefit of Lavallee ’s promise.
Defending Battered Women on Trial demonstrates, at times with excruciating rawness, the violence to which women are subjected and the lack of protection offered to them. It shows that battered women are frequently victimized serially. It contemplates the friends who turn away or—worse—participate in the violence. It documents the self-medication with drugs and alcohol, the indifference of police, and the fear that battered women harbor for their children’s welfare.
Indigenous women are vastly over-represented in Sheehy’s data set (and within the Canadian prison population as a whole). 2 Sheehy demonstrates that these women are disproportionately vulnerable to male violence. She documents the racism and colonialism that produce violence against Indigenous women. [End Page 489] Perhaps most importantly, she illustrates that racism and colonialism persist within the justice system’s attempts to comprehend violence against Indigenous women and within its responses to Indigenous women’s efforts to defend themselves. She draws on the experience of Jamie Tanis Gladue (yes, that first Gladue) 3 to identify the extraordinary pressures placed on Indigenous women to plead guilty. Her conclusion pays particular attention to addressing the systemic inequalities faced by Indigenous women.
As Sheehy recognizes, writing a book such as this gives rise to a risk that the women whose stories are related “will experience suffering by having their cases once more discussed and debated” (18). She explains in the introduction that she sought to treat “each woman’s story with integrity and respect” (18), while recognizing that she could not wholly avoid the risk of inflicting further harm. Her sensitivity to these risks is apparent throughout her treatment of the individual cases. As someone who has wrestled with similar concerns about researching cases involving women who have already suffered deep harm at the hands of the criminal justice system, I appreciated her attention to the risks that accompany the most sympathetic research, and her courageous and principled refusal to minimize or self-justify those risks.
One of the best reasons to read—at all, in any genre—is the empathy that reading can engender in the reader for those whose lives are very different. As a complete work, Defending Battered Women on Trial is overwhelming. I could not read the book in one sitting, though I wanted to. Women who commit violent acts, particularly racialized women, are among the most deeply othered groups in Canadian society. Driven by her concern to treat women with integrity and respect, Sheehy has offered a window into the...