One woman's story about domestic abuse and justice
The recent granting of clemency to Linda White shows how attitudes have changed.
BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — Linda White turns her wrist over and touches the half a dozen or so thin scars on her forearm.
"You can still see them," she says, sounding almost surprised. "That was from one of the times he tied me up. He also cut me."
"He" is her former boyfriend. A man named John Strouble. In 1989, after a year of severe psychological and physical abuse, Ms. White fatally shot him.
She used his gun - one that she says he routinely shot out the window, then put to her head to let her know he could and would kill her.
White pleaded self-defense, but was convicted of second-degree murder and was given 17 years to life in prison. But after serving more than 12 years, she has been granted clemency by New York Gov. George Pataki.
Like all stories about battering and abuse, hers is complicated. But it also provides a lens to illustrate the strides made as well as the setbacks within the nation's criminal justice system in its dealings with battered women over the past 20 years.
There are now hundreds of domestic-abuse hot lines and battered-women's shelters. And there have been major reforms in the criminal justice system, from special training for police to the establishment of protection orders in the courts.
But experts say that even as those advances raised public awareness and helped thousands of individuals, their effectiveness remains spotty. And they've also had an unintended consequence: Experts say they've fueled a backlash that makes it more difficult for women like Linda White to successfully plead self-defense.
"People had hoped that all of the interventions would make police and prosecutors and judges more savvy about what happens to battered women in violent relationships," says Holly Maguigan, a professor of political law at New York University. "But it is still very hard for people to understand that a woman like Linda White who uses serious force may be reasonable and justified."
During the 1990s, reported domestic violence dropped, although not as precipitously as the overall crime rate. In fact, Justice Department statistics tell a surprising story about the impact of increased awareness and services: They may have saved more men's lives than women's.
In 1976, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1,357 men and 1,600 women were killed in what the FBI refers to as "intimate partner" homicides. By 1999, the number of men killed by spouses, former spouses, or girlfriends had declined to 424, a drop of 69 percent. But the number of women killed decreased to only 1,218, a drop of just 24 percent.
Experts believe that's because shelters and hot lines have given women with access to them the ability to leave before they reach a breaking point. But abusive men do not have similar resources at their disposal. And studies still show that it is when an abused woman decides to leave that her batterer is the most likely to kill her.
"Women tend to kill when they're defending themselves, and the increased services have helped give women with access to them other options," says Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. "But men haven't really changed that much."
Linda White is an example of a woman who tried to leave but says she couldn't for fear of her life. Her interactions with the social-service system also exemplify the advances, as well as the huge gaps that remain in providing help to battered women.
To start, she says she'd never heard of a "battered woman" syndrome when she met Mr. Strouble. She was in her early 40s. She had raised three children, and after her mother died, she took in four much younger siblings, including a retarded brother.
White lived in a housing project in Queens. She worked her whole life as a cashier and clerk to support her family, except for a brief period in the early 1970s, when she went on welfare after taking in her siblings.
"Linda White was in 99.9 percent of her life an exemplary person, except in this one moment when she needed to defend herself. She's already paid a high price for that," says Julie Blackman, a social psychologist and expert on battered women.
According to White and court records, the abuse started a few months after she and Strouble met. She mentioned that he'd forgotten her birthday. His response was to slap her. His behavior became increasingly erratic. She suspected he was using drugs and asked him to leave her apartment. That started the cycle of beatings.
She changed her locks four times to try to keep him out. She called the police, who walked him around the block to "cool him off." She got a protection order forbidding him to come near her. He tore it up. Indeed, each effort to keep him away only enraged him and intensified the abuse.
One day, Strouble again played his game of Russian roulette with her, but instead of putting the gun away in his toolbox as he usually did, he left it on the bedside table. She walked out of the bathroom, saw it, picked it up, and shot him.
At her trial, prosecutors contended she was a coldblooded, jealous woman who killed Strouble because he was talking to a previous girlfriend with whom he had a child. The judge, who called her relationship with Strouble "stormy," also doubted some of the more horrific instances of abuse because she didn't seek medical attention.
Domestic-abuse experts say that characterization reflects a lack of understanding of battered woman's syndrome. "I would be shocked today to find anyone convicted of murder in a similar case," says Sara Bennett, White's appellate attorney.
Ms. Bennett provided a list of similar cases from the past decade where women, many of whom endured less severe abuse, were convicted of manslaughter and given shorter sentences.
Yet other experts in domestic abuse, like Professor Maguigan, contend that abused women's success in pleading self-defense is often dependent on whether they get attorneys and experts who are experienced in dealing with the special challenges of their cases. That such expertise exists is part of the progress that's been made.
The judge in White's case did not oppose her clemency request, as he did two years ago. The Queen's district attorney also didn't object - although Warren Silverman, the DA who tried the case, still believes she was an angry spurned lover, not an abused woman. "I just didn't think she was truly a battered woman," says Mr. Silverman. "But let's assume she is a battered woman. It doesn't give her the right to kill her batterer."
As for White herself, the clemency granted by Governor Pataki comes as a great gift and a relief. She's determined to put her experience to work for the good of others.
"I want to work with women who are going through it now. I can talk to them and tell them what to do: 'Leave, no matter what. You got to go,' " she says.
"I didn't see that then, but I see it now."