Read Women Who Kill by Ann Jones Free Online
Book Title: Women Who Kill|
The author of the book: Ann Jones
ISBN 13: 9781282748620
Edition: Feminist Press
Date of issue: May 10th 2014
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 740 KB
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Reader ratings: 7.2
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I. The American legal system: grotesque and ludicrous double standard between white men and everybody else, with modifiers for class, race, gender, and whether or not you have connections (see Borden, comma, Lizzie). This is especially clear in (although by no means unique to) the definition of "self-defense," which assumes two able-bodied men of roughly the same size. Not a woman and a man who may be a foot or more taller than she is and outweigh her by a hundred pounds.
II. Most women who kill are women in long-term abusive relationships with men who will not let them leave, women who have called the police, who have gotten restraining orders, who have done what they're "supposed" to do. (And if battered women have another option, any other option, the evidence shows they will take it rather than resort to homicide.) These are women whose boyfriends or husbands have threatened to kill them and in some cases have actually tried it, above and beyond the usual repertoire of battering and intimidation. Sometimes the police are still on the scene, having allegedly resolved the situation, when the man attacks again and the woman shoots. The especially horrifying part is the extremely clear evidence that if these women do not kill, they will be killed. As Jones says more than once, the question isn't, why don't the women leave? The question is, why won't the men let them go?
III. Otherwise, most women who kill, kill for the same reasons that men of their class, race, and age-group kill. They're desperate, frustrated, angry . . . and they happen to have a loaded gun in their hands at the wrong time.
IV. But then there's the case of Velma Barfield, who died by lethal injection for poisoning a number of people, including her mother. And here's where the problems start.
Problem A, since I seem to be writing this review in outline form, is the death penalty. The death penalty is totally problematic and I don't have a good answer, because the actual answer is drastic and draconian reform of our entire legal system on every level. You can't reform the death penalty if you don't deal with prison overcrowding. You can't deal with prison overcrowding if you don't address the problems of sentencing that sends all those prisoners to already overcrowded prisons. And you can't address the problems of sentencing if you don't want to tear apart the process that decides which people get tried for which crimes and why some people tried for the same crimes get radically different outcomes, which means questions about arrests, questions about public defenders, questions about prosecutors who are more concerned about their win-loss record than upholding the law . . . I think the adversarial model on which our legal system is built is incredibly, ludicrously, tragically wrong. As an example, the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold refused to be interviewed, on the absolutely correct advice of their attorneys that they would make themselves liable to prosecution. That's wrong--and I'm not talking about the Harrises and the Klebolds. In any situation where a crime has occurred, the first obligation of the legal system should be to find out the truth. And when the legal system itself is preventing that from happening--and Columbine is not the only case where that happens--then the legal system desperately needs reform. In the same way, and while I'm standing on this soap box, defense attorneys are absolutely obligated to do the best they can for their clients, but when did we get that twisted around to mean that it's okay (as in, not illegal and/or grounds for disbarment) for a defense attorney to work to get an acquittal for a client he knows is guilty? Because they do it all the time. And we all know it.
"Win-loss" is a very different cognitive structure than "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," and until we change that--which I don't see happening any time soon--legal or penal reform is going to be partial and only semi-successful at best. Probably not even that much.
And that's leaving aside the poison of privilege and the things people (mostly white, mostly men, but not exclusively) will do to keep the privilege they have, instead of understanding that it's poison. Privilege also works on a win-loss model, on the idea that if someone else wins privilege, you automatically lose yours. So you can't get anywhere until you can shift that paradigm to one of abundance, to the idea that there's enough to go around.
Problem B, in the meantime, is, as Jones very rightly says, the standards. Do we judge women by the same standards as men? How do we figure out what "the same standard" means when it's obvious (see above re: self-defense) that the identical standard is grossly unfair? (In the same way, do we--should we--judge people, men or women, living in extreme poverty, by the same standards we judge men or women living in the rarefied heights of Manhattan penthouses?) What is fair and what isn't?
I agree with Jones that women are often judged more harshly than men, partly because of the public perception that they are routinely judged less harshly, and thus in individual cases judges and juries feel they have to be harsh in order to correct the perceived (i.e., imaginary) imbalance, and partly because there are extenuating factors that you can't see if you look at a woman as if she were a man. Why, yes, it is reasonable and justifiable force for a 5'2" woman to use a gun against a 6'1" man who has beaten her up routinely for months or years, who has stalked her and harassed her and threatened her, even if it wouldn't be reasonable and justified for another 6'1" man who wasn't trapped in an abusive relationship to do the same thing. We have overwhelming evidence (Jones lists cases, and I don't even know how many more cases than that there must be) that if she doesn't use the gun, he will kill her, either intentionally or simply because he kicks her in the wrong place or punches her one too many times.
But Velma Barfield. Velma Barfield grew up in abject poverty. She was sexually abused by her father. She ended up addicted to pain-killers after a hysterectomy and was hospitalized several times for depression and drug overdoses. And she murdered her mother, her boyfriend, and two elderly people who had the misfortune to be married to people Barfield was hired to take care of. (She may also have murdered her second husband, although she denied it.) When there was a discernible motive for her murders, it was financial fraud--to cover up her habit of forging checks for drug money. One of her murders had no motive that even Barfield could find. In prison she detoxed from her addictions, became a born-again Christian, and was apparently in every way an admirable and valuable human being. So where do you draw the line between extenuating factors and personal responsibility? She murdered to fund her drug habit, but her drug habit could, by North Carolina law, be an extenuating circumstance to mitigate capital punishment. Barfield off drugs, and in the structured environment of a prison, was clearly not the same as the person who poisoned her mother with arsenic, but does that mean she should be exculpated of the murders she committed? The then-governor of North Carolina, James B. Hunt, Jr., chose not to commute her sentence for largely political reasons--although the families of two of her victims urged against commutation, so it wasn't just that he was running against Jesse Helms for the Senate. Should she have been put to death? If the death penalty is simply wrong, then obviously she shouldn't have been. That's easy. But if there are cases where the death penalty is justified, I'm not sure Barfield is a case where it wasn't. Okay, wow, syntactic scramble. What I mean is, Barfield murdered four (or five) people in cold blood--by arsenic, which is a terrible way to die--in order to hide another crime (forging checks) which was committed in order to fund her drug habit. (And, of course, in one case she seems to have committed murder for no reason at all.) If we admit the hypothesis that the death penalty can be a justifiable sentence, how can we commute Velma Barfield's sentence of death?
V. Obviously, this book made me think. In our current national zombie apocalypse, it is more than ever valuable and important reading, because what it's talking about more than anything else is the way in which patriarchy will defend itself, in which the men in power will continue to wiggle out of having to admit that all citizens are equal under the law and all have equal right to protection against (specifically) assault, whether the person doing the assaulting is a person in a domestic relationship with the victim or not. This is an excellent overview of the (appalling and infuriating) history of women in the American legal system and a sharp reminder that women (and other people who aren't white men) cannot trust blindly that the system will be fair to them. The system isn't necessarily set up to be fair to anyone who isn't a white man, and it is full of loopholes (i.e., "personal discretion") that allow its fairness to be adjusted to suit the views of police officer, prosecutor, judge . . .
Jones writes clearly, incisively, and with devastatingly sharp analysis. I didn't agree with her on all points (which isn't a criticism, just a fact), but I was fascinated throughout. And even though the book was originally written in 1980, it is (sadly) not an iota less relevant today.
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Read information about the authorAuthor of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, Ann Jones is a journalist and activist for womens rights around the globe. She is currently working on a book about women, war, and photography.
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