Article by Elizabeth Flock at The New Yorker about the criminalization of self-defense in cases of sexual and domestic violence. Excerpt below:

In the past several decades, imprisonment of women in the United States has increased at a rate twice that of men; there are now some two hundred and thirty thousand women incarcerated. No national data exist on how many women imprisoned for violent crimes claim that they were acting in self-defense, but a 2004 study by the Department of Justice, which surveyed sixty female inmates at a maximum-security prison in the Southeast, found that nearly half of them said that they had acted in self-defense or retaliated in the wake of abuse. “The women acted in response to being pushed, slapped, punched, beaten, choked, raped, or threatened with a weapon,” the study’s author wrote.


A review by researchers at the University of South Carolina and at Yale, in 2008, which drew on dozens of previous studies, found that when women used violence against male partners it generally occurred after violence was done to them. The review noted that women were more likely to be motivated by self-defense and by fear, while men’s use of violence was more often motivated by control. “I’ve been beaten in my head with hammers, I had my ear drum busted, I had my nose busted, I been hit in the ribs with a bat,” one woman told researchers. “When I started fighting back he know what happens now, [they] got these laws where you both fight you go to jail. So I got a jail record for assault. . . . God, what is the justice in this?”


Courts frequently do not take evidence of abuse into account. Sometimes this is because a woman’s lawyer fails to hire an expert witness to testify about the effects of sexual or domestic violence. A prosecutor may successfully argue that a woman’s self-defense claim is invalid because she didn’t end a relationship with an abuser, didn’t call the police about the violence (as Brittany didn’t), or allowed the abuser into her home (as Brittany did). Or a judge may not permit the evidence of abuse to be presented.


In 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Tracey Grissom was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for murder, for shooting her ex-husband, Hunter. The judge did not allow jurors to hear that, in 2010, Hunter had been charged with rape and sodomy after allegedly assaulting Grissom. Grissom said that he had knocked her to the ground, choked her with a drumstick, and sexually abused her until she lost consciousness. She said the attack caused rectal-nerve damage and required surgery, and that she now used a colostomy bag. The day of the shooting, she said, she’d feared for her life, but eyewitnesses said that she had begun shooting without provocation. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Grissom said, sobbing, after her conviction. “All I did was protect myself.” One of the jurors later said that, if she’d been able to hear the details of the abuse, she would have voted to acquit.

Image above from New Voices Pittsburgh, 2013. 

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