Sexual Violence Against Women and a Woman's Right to Self-Defense
For the first time in U.S. history, a woman stands accused of having serially killed six adult male motorists, one by one, in just over a year, after accompanying them to wooded areas off Highway 75 in Florida. I first heard about Aileen (Lee) Carol Wuornos in December 1990, when Florida newspapers and national media announced: "Two women are being sought as possible suspects in the shooting deaths of eight to twelve middle aged men who were lured to their deaths on the Florida highways.... These women are armed and dangerous and may be our nation's first female serial killers." This sounded as diabolically whimsical as Orson Welles's 1938 broadcast on the Martian invasion. Was this a joke—or did female serial killers really exist?
According to contemporary studies, 90 percent of all violent crimes are still committed by men. Women do not massacre adult or male strangers in large numbers all at once, nor do they stalk, rape, and kill male strangers one by one. When those women who commit 10 percent of all violent crimes do kill, nearly half kill male intimates who have abused them or their children, and they invariably do so in self-defense. Until recently, such (battered) women were viewed as more deviant and "crazy" than their male counterparts. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, female victims who kill male intimates in self-defense have been viewed more harshly than men who, unprovoked, kill their wives, girlfriends, or female non-intimates, especially prostituted women.
Most North American female prisoners have been convicted of petty economic crimes and of primarily "female" crimes such as prostitution. (Few 'Johns' are fined or imprisoned.) Due to increased drug use and tougher drug penalties, more women are being imprisoned than ever before; however, women still comprise less than 6 percent of the North American prison population. Still, this smaller and less violent population of female inmates (most of whom are young, uneducated, impoverished, African American or Spanish-speaking, single mothers) are, paradoxically, perceived as more violent than their more numerous and more violent male counterparts. Why?
Psychological double standards
Women are held to higher and different standards than men. People expect men to be violent; they are also carefully taught to deny or minimize male violence ("I don't believe any father would rape his own child") and to forgive violent men ("He's been under a lot of pressure"; "He's willing to go into therapy"). On the other hand, people continue to blame women for male violence ("She must have liked rough sex if she stayed married to him"; "She provoked him into beating her").
Also, people do not expect women to be violent, not even in self-defense. In fact, most people consistently confuse female self-defense with female aggression. In addition, people demand that women, but not men, walk a very narrow tightrope of acceptable behaviors. Most people are psychologically primed to distrust/dislike any woman who, in addition to failing to embody ideal behavior, dares to commit other morally questionable acts, such as having sex or children, for money, outside of marriage. Few women are deemed perfect enough to be seen as credible, or to merit serious compassion.
These psychological double standards of perceived violence result in a double standard of punishment. Studies document that women are often punished more severely for lesser, primarily "female" crimes, such as prostitution, than men are for the more violent "male" crimes of femicide and homicide. When women commit "male" crimes such as spouse or stranger murder after being raped, and in self-defense, or when they protectively kidnap a child, they are usually punished more harshly than their male so-called counterparts.
According to the 1990 Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Report, "despite the perception that the criminal justice system is lenient to women[,] . . . women (in Florida) are treated more harshly than similarly situated male offenders." Generally, whatever their crime, men in jail and prison have greater access to libraries, educational and rehabilitation programs, modem gymnasiums, etc., than do women; men's jails are also more conveniently located for family visitation than are women's jails. To avoid jail overcrowding, male criminals are often plea-bargained into lesser sentences by prosecutors who fear they might otherwise be set free. Because women commit fewer crimes, there are fewer, less overcrowded, women's prisons, and less motivation to plea-bargain women out in order to save jail space. Thus, women often serve longer sentences for lesser crimes, and in more ramshackle jails, than men do for more serious crimes.
Another example: as noted, battered women who kill in self-defense account for about half of all women who kill. Even here, men and women are not "equal." Non-battered men kill their female domestic partners three to four times more often than (battered) women kill their domestic partners/aggressors. Despite some "newsworthy" exceptions, battered women who kill in self-defense rarely 46get off," and to date are rarely granted clemency; most are given long or even life sentences without parole.
Judges, jurors, Senate Judiciary Committee members, and "We, the People," still value men's lives more highly than women's and feel compassion for male—but not for female—sinners. When a woman is accused of committing a crime (and even when the woman is the crime victim), her story is rarely believed by men or by other women, even less so if she is accusing a man of being the aggressor. That's when she's Anita Hill or Patricia Bowman; imagine what happens when she's a prostituted woman. What do we really know about women killers— especially those who kill male non-intimates?
Women killers in literature, film, and the social sciences
Have Austen, the Brontes, Eliot, Woolf, Colette, Wharton, Stein, Barnes, Nin, de Beauvoir, or Lessing ever given us a portrait of homicidal fury in female form? I don't think so. But neither have Dostoyevski, Melville, Baudelaire, Zola, Dickens, Celine, Genet, Camus, Burroughs, Miller, Wright, Ellison, Mailer, Mishima, or Capote. Few pre-feminist writers have ever dared to imagine the lives of women killers and outlaws. Not one character comes to mind: no female Raskolnikov, Meursault or Bigger Thomas.
This may be changing. Suddenly, or so it seems, we are being bombarded by celluloid images of women killing men: Barbara Streisand's incest-victim prostitute in Nuts; the three women who stomped a man to death in the Dutch surrealist film A Question of Silence; and the battered wives and victims of rape in The Burning Bed, Sleeping with the Enemy, Mortal Thoughts, and Thelma and Louise.
In actuality, these images have feminist precursors. By 1979, the preexisting grassroots shelter movement for battered women, and feminist lawyers and social scientists such as Diana Russell and Nicole Van den Ven (1976), Elizabeth Schneider (1978), Lenore Walker (1979,1989), Ann Jones (1981), Susan Schechter (1982), Angela Browne (1987), and Cynthia Gillespie (1989), began to focus on battered women who kill. Earlier still, and at a more imaginative level, feminist writers began to portray heroic, or anti-heroic, women who kill: Monique Wittig's fictionalized band of Amazon warriors, set in the future, in Les Guerilleres (1969), and Manastabal, her lesbian feminist Archangel, who guides Wittig through a Purgatory of abused women in Across the Acheron (1985); Nawal el Sadawi's Firdaus, a prostituted woman who kills her pimp in Woman at Point Zero (1975); Joanna Russ's Janet Evason, an advanced extraterrestrial warrior, in The Female Man (1976); Marge Piercy's Connie Ramos, a time-traveler and ideological warrior, in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976); Helen Zahavi's Bella, an ex-prostitute, "no one special," but someone who, once she'd "realized she'd had enough," proceeds to kill seven sexually and murderously assaultive men, in The Weekend (1991).
Andrea Dworkin's Mercy, first published in England in 1990, and in the United States in 1991, reads like something the visionary Cassandra might have written, had she escaped her life as Agamemnon's slave-prostitute and turned military tactician, had she escaped from history and become an "avenging angel":
We surge through the sex dungeon where our kind are kept, the butcher shops where our kind are sold; we break them loose; Amnesty International will * not help us, the United Nations will not help us; so at night, ghosts, we convene; to spread justice.... I am an apprentice: sorcerer or assassin or vandal or vigilante; or avenger; I am in formation as the new one who will emerge.
Enter Aileen Carol Wuornos—a prostitute and lesbian convicted of killing five men and accused of killing at least one more—a really "bad" girl.
Is Wuornos a serial killer?
The media and social scientists have described Wuomos as the first "female serial killer"; the FBI has classified her as such. But is this true? Is Wuornos indeed a female "Jack the Ripper," "Hillside Strangler," "Green River Killer," or "Night-Stalker? Women are disproportionately the victims of serial killers, who are mainly white male drifters, obsessed with pomography, womanhatred, and hornophobia, who sexually use their victims, either before or after killing them, and who were themselves patemally abused children. As adults, they scapegoat, targeting not fathers but mainly women, sometimes children, sometimes male homosexuals. Serial killers may be responsible for the permanent disappearance of thousands of prostituted and non-prostituted women each and every year all across the United States. In addition, sex murderers who stalk, rape, torture, and kill prostitutes (and non-prostitutes, whom they view as prostitutes and therefore as worthy of death) are rarely found or convicted.
I don't think Wuornos fits this description. Wuornos was not a pornography addict, she did not eroticize her hatred of women (or of men), she did not stalk women, or male or female prostitutes; in fact, she was a prostituted woman. The men she killed all fit the profile of "johns," those who frequent prostitutes.
In addition, most serial killers don't insist that they killed in self-defense, as Wuornos has. On January 16, 1991, she said this many, many times during her three-hour, videotaped confession, in which she also said that she believed she was going to be beaten or raped or killed by each of her victims. People say that Wuornos could not have killed six times in self-defense, that no one could—except, of course, men in times of war. But Wuornos, a seriously abused child and a serially raped and beaten teenage and adult prostitute, has been under attack all her life, probably more than any soldier in any real war.
In my opinion, Wuornos's testimony in the first trial was both moving and credible as she described being verbally threatened, tied up, and then brutally raped, both anally and vaginally, by Richard Mallory. According to Wuornos, she agreed to have sex for money with Mallory on the night of November 30, 1989. Mallory, who was intoxicated and stoned, suddenly turned vicious. According to Wuomos:
I said I would not [have sex with him]. "Yes. you are, bitch. You're going to do everything I tell you. If you don't, I'm going to kill you and [have sex with] you after you're dead just like the other sluts. It doesn't matter, your body will still be warm." He tied my wrists to the steering wheel, and screwed me in the ass. Afterwards, he got a Visine bottle filled with rubbing alcohol out of the trunk. He said the Visine bottle was one of my surprises. He emptied it into my rectum. It really hurt bad because be tore me up a lot. He got dressed, got a radio, sat on the hood for what seemed like an hour, I was really pissed. I was yelling at him, and struggling to get my hands free. Eventually he untied me, put a stereo wire around my neck and tried to rape me again. We struggled. I reached for my gun. I shot him. I scrambled to cover the shooting because I didn't think the police would believe I killed him in self-defense.
Apart from her own testimony, the jury never got to hear any evidence about Mallory's history of violence toward prostitutes, or about violence toward prostitutes in general, which might have helped them evaluate Wuornos's much-derided claim of self-defense.
Violence against prostitutes
Prostituted women have long been considered "fair game" for sexual harassment, rape, gang-rape, "kinky" sex, robbery, and beatings. Their homes have been destroyed, and they have been taunted, even killed, for "sport." A 1991 study by the Council for Prostitution Alternatives, in Portland, Oregon, documented that 78 percent of 55 prostituted women reported being raped an average of 16 times annually by their pimps and 33 times a year by johns. Twelve rape complaints were made in the criminal justice system and neither pimps nor johns were ever convicted. These prostitutes also reported being "horribly beaten" by their pimps an average of 58 times a year. The frequency of beatings by pimps ranged from once to daily, or 365 times per year; the frequency of beatings by johns ranged from I to 400 times a year. Legal action was pursued in 13 cases, resulting in 2 convictions for "aggravated assault." Fifty-three percent were the victims of sexual torture at the hands of both pimps and johns; nearly a third reported being mutilated as a result of this torture. Legal action was sought in 9 cases, and only once was a pimp convicted.
The 1990 Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Report states that "prostitution is not a victimless crime... Prostitute rape is rarely reported, investigated, prosecuted or taken seriously. Almost all young prostitutes have run away from sexual and physical abuse in their homes [and] are most often the victims of coercion." According to Susan Kay Hunter, Executive Director of the Council for Prostitution Alternatives, "[s]uicide is common among victim/survivors of prostitution. 75 percent of women victimized by escort prostitution have attempted suicide and prostituted women comprise 15 percent of all suicides reported by hospitals."
Recently, at least 17 women, mainly prostitutes, were killed by Joel Rifkin in New York; at least 48 women, mainly prostitutes, were killed by the Green River Killer in Washington State; at least 31 women, mainly prostitutes, were killed in Miami; 14 in Denver; 29 in Los Angeles; 43 in San Diego; 14 in Rochester; 17 in Alaska; 10 in Tampa. One authority, cited in the Canadian Report on Prostitution and Pornography, concluded that women and girls in prostitution suffer a mortality rate 40 times the national average.
Wuornos's Marion County public defenders, Trish Jenkins and Ed Bonnett, chose not to use any of the pro bono expert witnesses who were ready to testify for the defense in the first trial. It is the author's opinion that such experts were needed to educate the jury about the routine and horrendous sexual, physical, and psychological violence against prostituted women, including Wuornos, the long-term consequences of extreme trauma, and a woman's right to self-defense. Given how often prostituted women are raped, gang raped, beaten, robbed, tortured, and killed, Wuornos's claim that she killed Richard Mallory in self-defense is at least plausible. Wuornos's claim certainly merited far more thought and consideration than the neglect it received from those who heard and tried her case.
Let's assume that Wuornos's attorneys decided not to use any pro bono experts. What else might they have done? If a prostituted woman (or anyone) alleges rape and self defense, and there are no eyewitnesses other than the accused, it might be appropriate to review the murdered man's past history of violence both toward prostitutes and nonprostitutes. Shortly after the Mallory homicide, and a month before Wuornos's arrest, Mallory's former girlfriend, Jackie Davis, gave a grim portrayal of Mallory to investigator Larry Horzepa. Mallory, Ms. Davis recounted, had served ten years in prison, suffered from severe mood swings, drank too much, was violent to women, enjoyed the strip bars, was "into" pornography, was erratic in business and in trouble with the IRS, and had undergone therapy for some kind of sexual dysfunction. (Ultimately, Judge Uriel Blount did not allow Jackie Davis to testify about Mallory's past violence toward women.)
However, the prosecution did not share Davis's information with the defense for more than a year. The prosecution revealed this information on January 10, 1992, three days before Wuornos was to stand trial for Mallory's murder. On January 10, Judge Blount denied a defense motion for the admission of this testimony at trial and for a continuance to allow the defense to find and question Davis anew. In the author's view, the absence of such corroborating evidence was absolutely damaging to Wuornos's self-defense claim. Neither the defense nor the prosecution questioned Mallory's ex-wife, ex-girlfriends, or his numerous "one night stands" for cash about Mallory's violence toward them or toward other women.
It is true that Wuornos's public defender, Trish Jenkins, asked for a continuance at the last moment, in order to question Davis. However, on October 15, 1991—two months before the trial started—Jenkins herself had deposed Officer Lawrence Horzepa about Jackie Davis. In a series of meetings with Jenkins, held in April and May of 1991—nearly seven months before the first trial— feminists, myself included, had asked Jenkins and her investigator to look into Mallory's past. They never did. A computer check would have revealed that Richard Mallory had spent many years in Patuxent Prison, in Maryland, as a sex offender. In Mallory's criminal record, he was described as an "impulsive and explosive individual who will get into serious difficulty, most likely of a sexual nature... Because of his emotional disturbance and his poor control of his sexual impulses, he could present a potential danger to his environment in the future."
It is not clear whether the prosecution had ever done a thorough computer check on Mallory, or whether they actively suppressed the results. In a television interview, prosecutor John Tanner admitted that the prosecution's preparation had been "incomplete." He also admitted that "we may have to try the case again."
Psychopathology of woman-hatred
Is Wuornos guilty of being a prostitute? Or is she guilty of not having killed herself—the way all "good" sexual abuse victims and prostituted women are supposed to do? Or—shades of Thelma and Louise and the backlash against clemency for battered women who kill in self-defense—is Wuornos guilty of daring to defend herself in a violent struggle with a man and, by example, encouraging other prostitutes (and nonprostitutes) to do likewise?
Wuornos had sex for money with a countless number of men. Did the six johns she killed demand something that so terrorized and outraged her that she "snapped?" Or was it just the first of the six, Richard Mallory, who sent her over the edge? Were the countless number of johns all Wuornos could take before she cracked, or, dare I say it, experienced a momentary flight into sanity? Were they all Wuornos could take before she decided that "enough was enough?"
Was it anything like the Dutch film A Question of Silence, in which three women, strangers to each other, kill the 100,001st man who treats them as "women," and with contempt; they do so in a rather dreamlike sequence, and without exchanging a word. After the women are arrested, they maintain an uncanny silence. The prison psychiatrist hopes to save them by finding them insane. To her consternation, she can find nothing wrong with them. They are all ordinary, rather "nice" women who are not insane. With considerable anguish, the psychiatrist acknowledges that there is a war going on against women and that during war atrocities are committed—usually by the stronger, occupying force; more rarely, by the occupied themselves. She thinks, perhaps, that women may be "insane" when they put up with the daily atrocities, or when they deny that such atrocities are really happening.
A Question of Silence is a surrealistic feature film. Wuornos's story—especially since her arrest on January 9, 1991—is as surrealistic. Despite widespread media attention, the state of Florida treated Wuornos the way it treats all its female prisoners—very badly. As a pretrial detainee, Wuornos was entitled to the presumption of innocence. She was, instead, punished before her first trial. She lost more than forty pounds and appeared to age ten years within ten months. Wuornos was sometimes kept in solitary confinement, intermittently without her clothes (presumably as a way of preventing her suicide). She was sometimes verbally abused and threatened by prison guards and other inmates, deprived of daylight and exercise, allowed no safe, monitored medication for withdrawal from her long-standing alcohol addiction, and denied all contact visits. Her requests for a hearing aid, eyeglasses, and a gynecological exam were ignored or denied. Wuornos did place numerous collect phone calls to Arlene Pralle, the born-again Christian "Good Samaritan" who first began writing to her in February 1991, and who legally adopted her in November 1991.
In her videotaped confession, Wuornos was visibly distraught, confused, and rambling. Her police interrogators created a false sense of camaraderie with her by frequent inquiries about her comfort and by engaging in cozy small talk. Wuornos seemed to have no clear understanding of where she was, whether she was talking to police officers or lawyers, why exactly she needed a lawyer, or what exactly a lawyer could do for her. Wuornos continued to insist that the killings were done in self-defense. The absence of skilled legal counsel—even after Wuornos said she wanted counsel—was woefully apparent. Late in the session, (ineffective) counsel was finally provided.
Some of the events Wuornos attempted to describe to the police during her confession on January 16, 1991, had happened more than a year before, as a result, Wuornos omitted important details. Like many sexually abused women, Wuornos minimized the violence done to her—a result of misguided bravado, shame, self-blame. Her later, more detailed account at trial, describing the horrific abuse she suffered at Mallory's hands immediately preceding his homicide, was viewed as "inconsistent," contradictory," or as a series of "lies.
Even before Wuornos was arrested, local, national, and international media, including Hollywood and net work TV filmmakers, became part of the drama. The most (routinely) brazen manipulation of Wuornos commenced. For example, right after her arrest, Wuornos's first public defender, Ray Cass, helped Wuornos negotiate a deal with Hollywood filmmaker Jacqui Giroux— the only person who visited Wuornos immediately following her arrest. Three Marion County sheriffs, Major Dan Henry, Bruce Munster, and Steven Binegar, together with Wuornos's lesbian ex-lover, Tyria Moore, allegedly sold their version of the story to CBS/Republic Pictures. In an early version of the CBS script "Overkill," the only names not fictionalized were Moore's, Munster's, Binegar's, and Henry's. Although she had been a suspect, Tyria Moore was never charged with any crime and took the stand against Wuornos for the prosecution.
Arlene Pralle and Wuornos's third attorney, Steve Glazer, negotiated with and pocketed the relatively small amounts of money paid by the media to interview Wuornos on death row. In a phone conversation, Glazer himself confirmed to the author that Montel Williams, the BBC, and Geraldo Rivera each paid between $7,500 and $10,000 to interview Wuornos on death row. Glazer also persuaded Wuornos to withdraw her lawsuit against Giroux and to renegotiate (or "upgrade") the original contract instead.
Although the media proved as much hero as villain, "Government by Geraldo," if not translated into a series of legal motions, is at best useless and at worst harmful. For example: Wuornos's original judge, Gayle Graziano, replaced Wuornos's first public defender, Ray Cass who, Wuornos charged, had negotiated with Hollywood producer Jacqui Giroux for the movie rights to Wuornos's story. At Wournos's request, her new public defender was a woman, Trish Jenkins of neighboring Marion County, whose office was six to eight hours away, round-trip, from Wuornos's jail cell. This replacement (of a man and by a female lawyer in another county), was ultimately used by the prosecution to force Judge Graziano into recusing herself,
Another example: according to a number of people interviewed by the author, Giroux allegedly began offering contracts for $5,000 to the people in Wuornos's childhood if they spoke only to Giroux—and presumably not to any other media person. For this and other reasons, some Michigan residents who knew how badly Wuornos had been abused during childhood allegedly did not cooperate with Wuornos's public defenders at all, or in a timely fashion. When Giroux allegedly tried to intercede, it was too late. In any event, Trish Jenkins did not call anyone to testify for the defense from Michigan or elsewhere.
Double standards for serial killers?
Do we have different standards for evil, violence, and insanity—one for men, another for women? Or is Wuornos simply too evil for a woman? As such, is her punishment a warning to other women that female violence, including self-defense, will never be forgiven, only punished? Let's look at another Florida serial killer: Ted Bundy, who killed at least thirty (and possibly more) women. Several lawyers, including Atlanta lawyer Millard Farmer and North Florida lawyer Brian T. Hays, offered to defend Bundy pro bono in Florida; Dr. Emil Spillman advised him on jury selection pro bono; at one point, no fewer than five public defenders assisted Bundy, who insisted on representing himself. 'Me author tried, unsuccessfully, to find a criminal attorney for Wuornos, but no private sector lawyer ever materialized. After fifty phone calls, the author found one first-rate political lawyer who was willing to handle Wuornos's first trial, but he needed $50,000 in expenses—a reasonable demand, but one impossible to meet.
Even more significant is that the State of Florida offered Ted Bundy a life sentence without parole—a plea-bargain Bundy refused. Jenkins et al. tried to arrange a similar plea for Wuornos, but James Russell, the Dixie County Prosecutor, thought Wuornos deserved to die and refused to agree to a plea bargain.
Considering its complexity, Wuornos's first trial was exceptionally brief. it took only thirteen court days. The state had estimated that the trial would last from three to six weeks. Judge Blount, who was coaxed out of retirement to replace Judge Graziaio, granted all of the prosecution—and denied most of the defense—motions. In deference to the state's motion, the jury was allowed to see excerpts from Wuornos's videotaped confession minus her repeated statements that she killed in self-defense. Under Florida's Williams rule, the jury was also permitted to hear similar fact evidence from the six other alleged murders. (Under the same rule, Judge Mary Lupo, presiding in William Kennedy Smith's 1991 Palm Beach rape trial, did not allow the jury to hear any of the other allegations of rape against Kennedy.)
Judge Blount did not grant the defense a change of venue despite the overwhelming local pretrial publicity, which included Wuornos's televised confession. (Ted Bundy did get a change of venue, from Tallahassee to Miami, for similar reasons.) Judge Blount felt that he could seat an "impartial" jury even if they'd seen or heard about the confession—and he did so in a day and a half.
Given the gravity and the notoriety of the case, the sixty-eight prospective jurors might have been polled individually; none were. Further, only jurors who said they believed in the death penalty were seated. (This is routinely done in Florida.) The jury would first determine guilt or innocence and, if guilty, would then decide on a sentence of life or death; the judge could, however, override the jury's sentence.
The prosecution's legal theory was replete with misogynist stereotypes. Lead prosecutor John Tanner, a born-again Christian, had been Ted Bundy's death row "minister" and had tried to have Bundy's execution delayed. In his opening and closing arguments, Tanner portrayed Wuornos as a "predatory prostitute" whose "appetite for lust and control had taken a lethal turn," who "had been exercising control for years over men," and who "killed for power, for full and ultimate control."
During the guilt/innocence phase of this bifurcated capital trial, Wuornos was the only witness for the defense. As previously noted, early in the trial preparation, feminists, the author included, contacted more than fifty experts, approximately ten of whom agreed to testify for the defense, pro bono or at minimal cost. These included a psychologist, a psychiatrist, experts in prostitution and violence against prostitutes, experts in child abuse, battery, rape trauma syndrome, lesbianism, lesbian battery, female alcoholism, and the psychology of adoption. (Wuornos was abandoned by her biological mother and was herself a birth-mother at fourteen as a result of being raped; she surrendered her infant for adoption.) None of these experts—and no other experts with similar information—were ever called by the defense.
Usually, impoverished (and non-impoverished) women do not have anyone willing to speak for them, nor do they routinely have "supportive" families. They're lucky if they don't die at the hands of a family intimate. Often, the families of female outlaws are the ones who turn them in and testify against them. Wuornos's lesbian ex-lover, Tyria Moore, was the star prosecution witness against her. Wuornos's uncle, twelve years her senior, with whom she'd been raised as a sibling, and whom she hadn't seen for at least twenty years, testified for the prosecution. He claimed that Wuornos had never been abused at home and therefore had no "reason" to kill anyone.
Wuornos did have the support of a complete stranger, Arlene Pralle, the woman who contacted Wuornos after her arrest and who legally adopted her. (Pralle was herself adopted.) Although Pralle "meant well," her own need to talk to the media, presumably on Wuornos's behalf but mainly about herself and about her love, both for Jesus and Wuornos, posed grave dangers to the defense. Once Wuornos was sentenced to death, Pralle publicly supported Wuornos's desire to be put to death as quickly as possible and to "go home to Jesus."
Jury deliberation in the Wuornos case was surprisingly brief: on January 30, 1992, her jury of five men and seven women needed only one hour and thirty-one minutes to find her guilty, and only one hour and forty-eight minutes to recommend the death penalty. (In Ted Bundy's case, thejury took seven hours to find him guilty and seven and a half hours to sentence him to death.) On January 3 1, 1992, at 9 A.M., Judge Blount, who could have overridden the jury's recommendation, ordered that Wuornos die in the electric chair for the murder of fifty-one-year-old ex-convict Richard Mallory. She was immediately taken to death row at the Broward County Correctional Facility for Women.
Woman's right to self-defense
In the early 1970s, grass-roots feminists, civil rights activists, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on three cases in which women of color had killed violent male non-intimates in self-defense: the Yvonne Wanrow case, State v. Wanrow, 538 R2d 849 (Wash. App. 1975), aff 'd, 559 P.2d 548 (Wash. 1977) (en banc); the Joan Little case, State v. Little, 74 Cr. No. 4176 (Super. Ct., Beaufort Co., N.C. 1975); and the Inez Garcia case, People v. Garcia, 126 Cal. Rptr. 275 (App. 1976), cert. denied, 426 U.S. 911 (1976). Joan Little was a black woman who killed a white jail guard who attempted to rape her in the jail cell in which she was incarcerated for a burglary conviction. She was represented by Morris Dees and acquitted in 1975. Inez Garcia was raped, and she shot the man who held her down later that same day. She was convicted, but her conviction was overturned on appeal.
On August 11, 1972, Yvonne Wanrow, a five-feet-four-inch Colville Indian woman with a cast on her leg and using a crutch, shot William Wesler, a six-feet-two-inch white man, who was intoxicated and advancing on Wanrow and the children she was babysitting. Wesler was previously known to Wanrow as a child molester and as an ex-psychiatric inmate. At trial, Wanrow argued that she had acted in self-defense. Wanrow was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree assault with a deadly weapon. On appeal to the Washington Court of Appeals, however, her conviction was reversed, 538 P.2d 849 (Wash. App. 1975), and the Washington Supreme Court affirmed, 559 P.2d 548 (Wash. 1977).
The Washington Supreme Court held that Wanrow's actions were to be judged against her own "subjective impressions of danger and not those which a detached jury might determine to be objectively reasonable." 559 P.2d at 558. In recognizing the special circumstances that often accompany a woman's assertion of self-defense, the court acknowledged that "women suffer from a conspicuous lack of access to training in and the means of developing those skills necessary to effectively repel a male assailant without resorting to the use of deadly weapons." Id. With respect to the delivery of jury instructions, the court cautioned that
[t]he persistent use of the masculine gender leaves the jury with the impression the objective standard to be applied is that applicable to an altercation between two men. The impression created-that a 5'4" woman with a cast on her leg and using a crutch must, under the law, somehow repel an assault by a 6'2" intoxicated man without employing weapons in her defense, unless the jury finds her determination of the degree of danger to be objectively reasonable—constitutes a separate and distinct misstatement of the law and, in the context of this case, violates the respondent's right to equal protection of the law.
Id. at 558-59.
In 1978, Elizabeth Schneider, who was Wanrow's lawyer in the successful appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, and Susan Jordan, her coauthor, commented on the Wanrow case, noting that the
circumstances under which women are forced to defend themselves [are] entirely different from those which cause men to commit homicides, [and] the woman's state of mind is different as well. Presenting the individual woman's perspective in the trial means educating the judge and jury about the incidence and severity of the problems of rape, wife-assault, and child abuse and molestation.
Schneider & Jordan, "Representation of Women Who Defend Themselves in Response to Physical or Sexual Assault," 4 Women's Rts. L. Rep. 149, 156 (1978).
Since the Wanrow decision, many women have alleged rape/self-defense; few have been believed. (See, e.g., Thomus v. State, 578 S.W.2d 691 (Tex. Crim. App. 1979); Commonwealth v. Lamrini, 467 N.E.2d 95 (Mass 1984); Commonwealth v. Carbone, 574 A.2d 584 (Pa. 1990.) An increasing number of articles on feminist jurisprudence have also tried to clarify, further, the circumstances under which a reasonable woman can argue rape/battery/self-defense. See Schneider & Jordan, supra; Fabricant, "Homicide in Response to a Threat of Rape: A Theoretical Examination of the Rule of Justification," 11 Golden Gate U. L. Rev. 945 (1981); Kates & Engberg, "Deadly Force Self-Defense Against Rape," 15 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 873 (1982); Reece, "Women's Defenses to Criminal Homicide and the Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel: The Need for Relocation of Difference," 1 UCLAWomen's L. J. 1101 (1991); Cahn, "The Looseness of Legal Language: The Reasonable Woman Standard in Theory and in Practice," 77 Cornell L. Rev. 1398 (1992).
Burning questions remain. Does a woman have the right to kill to prevent herself from being raped? In the past, courts have refused to impose the death penalty on rape or to hold that forcible sex constitutes "great bodily harm" to trigger penalty enhancement—despite the fact that the consequences of rape are often life-long and extremely debilitating. If a woman only has the right to use whatever force, short of homicide, necessary to prevent rape, how can she know exactly how much or how little force to employ in order to make her escape? How does a woman know that a rapist will stop at rape? Does a woman have the same right to "heat-of-passion" and rage to protect her bodily integrity and "honor" that a man does? Does a man's Fourteenth Amendment right to use deadly force to prevent burglary or other invasions of the home and castle cover a woman's right to prevent any unwanted invasion of her body?
From about 1967 on, in addition to fighting for women's right to abortion and to equal pay for equal work, grass-roots feminists focused on the sexual objectification of women and on issues of sexual violence toward women, such as stranger-rape and sexual harassment on the job and on the street. Only after a decade were feminist activists able to expand their focus to include marital rape, date rape, domestic battery, and incest. During the 1980s it became clear to feminists working in the area that most prostituted women were also incest victims, that many battered wives were treated as if they were their husband's or boyfriend's prostitutes, that both wife-batterers and serial killers of women were addicted to pornography, and that all women, whether prostitutes (die so-called "bad girls") or non-prostitutes (the so-called "good-girls"), who dared to kill in self-defense were treated as if they were prostitutes, i.e., demon terrorists from hell, who deserved no mercy.
As yet, no radical feminist equivalent to the Center for Constitutional Rights or the Southern Poverty Law Center exists, nor does even one graduate, medical, or law school program committed to centralizing, summarizing, and updating the relevant research and to training expert witnesses in this area. The media decides which cases the nation will follow, not feminists, who are without the necessary institutional resources.
As disappointed as the author was in Jenkins's defense of Wuornos, Jenkins and cocounsel Billy Nolas and William Miller look radiantly efficient compared to her third lawyer, Steven Glazer of Gainesville. Pralle and Wuornos both told the author that Glazer had originally been recommended by Trish Jenkins, not as a defense attorney but to handle Wuornos's adoption by Pralle. The author phoned Glazer for the first time on March 1, 1992, and was told that he was not interested in having the author or any other pro bono expert testify for the defense in upcoming trials two through six, nor was he interested in handling Wuornos's appeal of the Mallory conviction or in a future campaign for clemency. Glazer said he was interested only in how much money the author would pay for the right to interview Wuornos on death row, that his client had empowered him to do this and no more. Glazer told the author that other writers had already offered $10,000 cash up front with an additional percentage of paperback monies.
Glazer instructed Wuornos to cease communicating with the author, which she did for six months. In March 1992, shortly after our initial conversation, Glazer had Wuornos plead "no contest" in Marion County in three additional trials. In open court, Glazer likened himself to the "Dr. Jack Kevorkian of the legal world," and asked Judge Thomas Sawaya to "assist him in helping his client to commit suicide." (What next? A lawyer who offers to pull the switch? A lawyer who scalps tickets for front-row seats in the execution chamber?)
Wuornos was sentenced to death a total of five times in 1992. Christopher Quarles of the Marion County Public Defender's Office filed the state-level appeal of Wuornos's first conviction in October 1992. (This appeal was re-filed in January 1993.) Steven Glazer, however, never filed notice that he or his client wished to appeal the subsequent death sentences...
From the start, people consistently asked the author if Wuornos was "crazy" (never if she was "guilty"; most were convinced she was). Everyone in Wuornos's life her family of origin, her childhood neighbors and teachers, the home for teenage unwed mothers, the Michigan juvenile and Florida adult correctional facilities, her lesbian lover, the prosecution, the defense, the private lawyers, the judges, the juries, the investigating police officers, Hollywood and the media, even We, the People, conspired, through acts of commission, omission, indifference, and negligence, to deprive Wuornos of the most minimal justice.
This is a bold book, intimate and rich in detail… Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She will never stop
--Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics and Going to Iran
The 2011 Edition of Mothers on Trial
The Battle for Children and Custody
Updated & revised with 7 new chapters, a new introduction, and a new resources section.
The 2009 Edition of
Woman's Inhumanity to Woman
Including a new Introduction by the author.