This Woman Killed Her Abusive Husband to Save Herself. Did She Deserve to Go to Prison?
Tanya Mitchell's voice was frantic on the 911 call. "Why did you shoot him with a gun?" the operator asked. "I don't know," said Mitchell, crying. "He said that he was going to kill me.... No, I know he was going to kill me." Mitchell had plenty of reason to believe she was in danger: She says her husband had tortured her, that he had offered her up to members of his motorcycle club, and watched as they gang-raped her—only to beat her afterward for "allowing" the rape to happen. She recalls how he tried to rip her toenails off with pliers, and times she endured games of Russian roulette, where he held a gun to her forehead—click, click, click. "He pretty much told me that we were going to get married at gunpoint," says Mitchell in the documentary A Perfect Victim. "I was ready to get out of the relationship, but he wasn't going to let me go at this point. He said that if he couldn't have me, nobody could have me. And he meant it."
In her defense, Mitchell's lawyers could have attempted using Battered Woman Syndrome, an approach developed in the 1970s that takes a person's psychological condition into account as a result of abuse—but they decided it was too risky. "The threat has to be imminent," Amy Lorenz-Moser, a lawyer who does pro bono work for the Missouri Battered Women's Clemency Coalition, advocating for victims of intimate partner violence, tells Glamour. "It doesn't always take into account that the threat might not have been imminent, but [the woman] knew it was imminent in that [she] had been abused by this person all these years, and [her partner] got that look in his eyes." The danger with using Battered Woman Syndrome in court is that the accused must admit to the murder—and then prove that she acted in self-defense because of a threat happening right at that moment. "The problem is that you've admitted to the killing, you've taken that away, and in that way it's proving the self-defense part," says Lorenz-Moser. "You can prove abuse with photos...but if you don't prove self-defense, you still lose. It comes down to showing immediate fear."
Mitchell instead pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and like many women who kill an intimate partner, she received the maximum sentence—in her case, 15 years. Lorenz-Moser says that generally, men who kill their wives receive less jail time than women who kill their husbands—even when those husbands were abusive. One problem, she says, is that female abuse victims often don't have access to proper legal representation—they may be unemployed, as well as alienated from friends and loved ones who could help. "I also think plain old gender discrimination is a factor," says Lorenz-Moser. "There's a huge disparity between the sentences of men and women get for killing intimate partners, and I think part of this is as a society, it's more shocking when a woman kills than when a man kills."
Statistically speaking, women kill out of fear—not revenge. As many as 93 percent of women serving time for killing an intimate partner were abused by that partner, according to a California state prison study. Seventy-five percent of women in New York prisons have been the victim of abuse as an adult, and data from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision shows that 67 percent of women jailed in 2005 for killing someone close to them were abused by their victims. And while men can also be the victims of domestic violence, four out of five victims are women. These are not small numbers: A third of U.S. women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, and one in four has been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When filmmaker Elizabeth Rohrbaugh learned about women serving lengthy sentences—sometimes life in prison—for killing the men who abused them, she decided to make a documentary on the subject. She chose four women to feature—all of whom are now out of prison, thanks to the work of female lawyers passionate about seeking justice for abuse victims. During the four years it took to make the film, Rohrbaugh says she faced opposition from the local prison system in Missouri and the governor's office. "They made it incredibly difficult for me to film, and I think they really did not want me to," she says. "When I first went into the prison, I was allowed to interview two people—I think they thought it was a news segment and I would be there one time. As we continued to put in new requests, new rules were put in place that seemed pretty specific for me, but they said it was for all press. I could only visit one person per week, and there had to be a seven-day time period between interviews." Rohrbaugh and her crew—who were not being paid for their work—flew from New York City to Missouri for tapings and could not always afford to come out weekly. "They knew that, and they were trying to make things difficult for us," she says.
The women featured in the film took a risk going on camera at all. Mitchell feared for the safety of her family, and that her late husband's friends would retaliate against them. But she also wanted out of prison and saw the film as a way to share what had happened to her. "The people who have felt the fear that I felt, they're not around to tell the story about that fear," Mitchell tells Glamour. "My mom said maybe it will help one person out there, one person will see it, and it will help her. It was hard just reliving everything, all the details...[Elizabeth] couldn't tell me a month ahead of time [she was coming in for an interview], or I would be sick for a month." After being released from prison in 2013 with the help of Lorenz-Moser, Mitchell now savors the little things many of us take for granted. "In prison, when you get a visit, it's a brief hug," she says. "Now, I can hold my mom as long as I want to. I can give her a hug forever and not just until the count of five. That was the main thing I missed in prison."
"Doing this documentary was physically painful for her, and I didn't want her to go through that pain," says Rohrbaugh. "But I knew the end goal was worth it."
Now Mitchell wants other women who may be in abusive relationships to "get out before they're dead or before they go to prison." "You can have a healthy relationship," she says. "I wish I could have told myself that. I wish there was someone close to me who could have known about [the violence].... I got tons of support through all this, but nobody really knew what to do."
Find out more about Mitchell's story, and hear from other women, by tuning in to The Perfect Victim, airing on April 14 at 8 P.M. on the World Channel (check your local station here.) You can also view the film for free from April 15 to October 15 on worldchannel.org. Watch the full trailer below:
For more ways to help victims of intimate partner violence, visit theperfectvictim.com. And if you or someone you know may be the victim of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or contact the organization online via hotline.org to speak confidentially with a trained advocate.