When we hear stories about domestic violence, one question seems to rise to the surface again and again: If the abuse is so bad, why didn’t she leave?
“I think the question should be, ‘Why did he hit her for twenty years?’ ” says Tanya Mitchell, a subject of the new film The Perfect Victim.
Mitchell doesn’t say this lightly. Her late husband spent more than two decades physically and emotionally abusing her; when he told her he’d kill her, she killed him first. She was charged with second degree murder and imprisoned in 2002.
It’s stories like hers that prompted Elizabeth Rohrbaugh to make The Perfect Victim, which airs on the World channel Tuesday night. The film follows the stories of four Missouri women who killed their husbands or had them killed as a result of domestic abuse. Collectively, they’ve served more than eighty-five years in prison.
Because Missouri didn’t make abuse evidence admissible in court until 1987, with the introduction of the Battered Spouse Syndrome statute, these women’s initial sentences did not take the fact that they’d been abused into account. But a partnership between Missouri Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence and a team of lawyers and law students is giving a second chance to abused female inmates who were given disproportionate sentences.
In blaming victims for “putting up with” abuse rather than holding abusers accountable, our culture continues to misunderstand the very nature of domestic abuse and how it comes to the point her subjects reached, Rohrbaugh explains.
“The idea of living with fear all the time, and never having a break from that––[killing an abuser] is such a complicated type of crime to occur and it’s not as linear as the idea of making a decision to kill somebody,” she says. “It’s a snowball, not a straight line.”
Whether an abuser constitutes an “imminent” threat becomes a key question that can be difficult to prove. In Missouri, attorney Amy Lorenz-Moser explains, “ ‘Self defense’ means there is an imminent threat that is happening now. ‘Battered Spouse Syndrome’ recognizes that the threat is imminent because of the pattern of abuse.”
The catch to claiming Battered Spouse Syndrome, she adds, is that the defendant must admit to the crime and hope the jury is sympathetic. Before the statute was passed, lawyers advised their clients to avoid any mention of abuse because it could be seen as a motive for committing the crime.
Rohrbaugh points to the case of Ruby Jamerson, also featured in the film, as an example.
“She was sentenced shortly after the acknowledgement of Battered Spouse Syndrome, but she was in a position where because it was so new and her lawyers didn’t know what to do with it, they assumed it would give her motive for the killing,” she says. “Once you start talking about abuse, that person is automatically given a motive.”
Most of Mitchell’s initial legal assistance was coming from family members, not legal professionals. Lorenz-Moser heard about the case from her partners. When she saw the pictures of Mitchell’s bruises and scars and heard her story, she was compelled to take on the case.
Mitchell was released in October 2013.
“We got the parole board to change their mind. Mitchell had had no previous criminal history; she had an extremely sympathetic story,” Lorenz-Moser says.
Not every abuse victim is a good candidate for clemency, unfortunately: Mitchell’s clean record regarding drug use and prison behavior, as well as her well-spokenness, helped her case.
“All things showed she was going to be successful,” says Lorenz-Moser. “What makes an outstanding candidate for clemency is being able to articulate your story and why you did what you did and that you understand that it was wrong.”
That Mitchell had extensive photos documenting her abuse also helped. And these photos weren’t taken at a hospital or by police, but by Mitchell’s friends and co-workers in secret.
“My co-workers took the pictures on several different occasions; they believed he was a dangerous man because of the threats he made at my work,” Mitchell recalls. “He would show up at my job and he would talk to them face to face and threaten them.”
As she recalls these threats, Mitchell is calm and collected, but the pain in her voice is clear. Each woman in the film tells her story with remarkable bravery, describing the daily terrors of rape, battering, and imprisonment with a shaking voice but determined eyes.
“What really motivated me to do [this film] was watching these clemency videos that the Coalition had taken ten years prior,” Rohrbaugh recalls, referring to the Coalition project encouraging abused female inmates to make videos asking the Governor for clemency. “I watched ten in a row over a two-day period, and I was struck by the horrific nature of what they were describing. It seemed so impossible to me that anyone could describe a situation with such horrific detail. Either every person in prison could win an Oscar tomorrow or they’re telling the truth.”
Those who want to help, Lorenz-Moser says, should look to their local domestic violence shelters and organizations. “Domestic violence shelters are incredibly underfunded; almost half of the people looking for shelter have to be turned away in Missouri. In St. Louis, there is more room in shelters for dogs and cats than women and children,” she points out.
“This is a major public health issue,” Rohrbaugh urges. “Try and make it a priority.”
What is Mitchell’s life like as a free woman?
“It’s been amazing,” she says. “Everything’s an adventure. I thank God that I’m here. I’m truly thankful.”
She says the first thing she did was hug her family.
“Physical contact isn’t something you’re allowed to get in prison,” she says. “I missed being able to hug them as long as I wanted to.”
To current victims of abuse, Mitchell says, “I would like to tell them that there is happiness after. I would like people to know there is life after a bad relationship; just get out so you can be happy. I’ve got the coolest boyfriend now. My whole life, my family, it’s all good.”
Like many abuse victims, Mitchell still felt controlled by her husband, even many years after his death.
“When I first saw the doctor I was saying how I was still in love with him and he was still controlling me, and he did that many years throughout my incarceration,” she says. “Now I have true happiness in my heart. I have true happiness in my soul. I want to say that I am not in love with him anymore, and he is not controlling me anymore.”
Julia Burke is web editor for The Progressive.
Image credits: Kat Westergaard; above, Tanya Mitchell; slider; Amy Lorenz-Moser