Self-Defense Can’t Save Women From a Sexist Criminal Justice System
The nearly identical cases of Brittany Smith and Rose Parker show how the justice system penalizes abuse victims for surviving
In 1986, Rose Parker shot her abuser to save her brother’s life. The man she shot, Art Bago, had been horrifically abusive during their relationship, making Parker fear for her life and, at one point, raping her in front of her 19-month-old son. She became pregnant after the rape and hid in her brother’s house. Bago came to the house with two guns and an Uzi and held both the pregnant Parker and her son captive for days, beating her throughout. When Parker’s brother stormed the house, hoping to rescue Rose, Bago picked up the Uzi and headed out to murder him. Parker grabbed a gun that Bago had left unattended and shot him in the back.
“I was so happy when the police came,” Parker told me over the phone, more than 30 years later. “I ran out there. I told them everything because I felt safe. Then they put me in prison.”
Rose Parker pleaded self-defense for killing Art Bago, but her plea was rejected; the judge ruled that since she’d shot Bago in the back, he could not have been charging her. She tried citing the previous abuse, only to find herself cast as a vengeful woman: “I was like, ‘He tried to kill me before! He forced himself on me!’ And they turned around and used that as [my] motive,” she said. “Go figure.” Parker was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
We are culturally conditioned to view women’s attempts to protect themselves from men as more fearful, and more dangerous, than any assault a man might commit.
If this sounds like a spectacular miscarriage of justice, it’s actually not unusual at all. This story is so common, in fact, that a recent viral news story — the case of Brittany Smith, who was held captive and raped by a man she’d bought a dog from — recapitulates it nearly beat for beat. Smith was also held captive by her attacker, also had copious physical evidence of her attack (doctors found 33 wounds on her body), and also shot her rapist while he was physically assaulting her brother, who’d arrived at her home. She, too, attempted to claim self-defense, and at her recent hearing, the judge found that her “use of deadly force” was not “demonstrably justified” by her circumstances.
Parker read about Smith’s case; she was appalled. “Thirty-five years later, and they still don’t get it,” she said.
It’s hard to know how many stories like this there are, but the data suggests they’re more common than you would ever suspect. In one California prison study, 93% of women imprisoned for murdering a partner said they’d been physically abused by the person they killed; 67% of those women reported that they’d been trying to protect themselves or a loved one.
It’s not just that we mishandle women’s self-defense cases. It’s that the ways we mishandle them have not demonstrably changed in decades. We are culturally conditioned to view women’s attempts to protect themselves from men as more fearful, and more dangerous, than any assault a man might commit. As a result, many women imprisoned for “murder” are, in fact, victims who are being punished for managing to survive.
Parker was pardoned in 2011 and has since become a domestic violence advocate. She said that stories like hers and Smith’s are shockingly common in prisons.
“We had created our own support group inside the institution called Convicted Women Against Abuse,” she told me. “I remember when I was sitting in the circle early on, and somebody described her story, and for a minute there, I’m like, ‘You knew Art?’ It was the same thing. And it tripped me out. I’ll never forget that.”
Yet these stories, when they reach us, are rarely presented in such a sympathetic light. Instead, the women are demonized. Our splashiest, most tabloid-friendly female monsters often have their roots in male violence; Lorena Bobbitt became a bogeyman and a punchline for cutting off her husband’s penis, but the years of physical and sexual abuse she endured leading up to that incident were often downplayed or overlooked. Aileen Wuornos, who became famous as “America’s first female serial killer” (a title that was undeserved on multiple fronts — there had been several female serial killers before her) claimed that she had been raped or threatened with rape by each man she killed; one of those men had already been convicted of attempted rape, and as a sex worker operating unprotected on the street, it was not at all unlikely that she faced routine sexual violence. Nonetheless, Wuornos was presented as a predator rather than a desperate woman.
Many women imprisoned for “murder” are victims who are being punished for managing to survive.
Public sympathy often attends upon white women like Smith or Wuornos — the latter, in particular, became something of a feminist antihero, with multiple sympathetic documentaries about her case and a biopic by future Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins. Black women are even more likely to be incarcerated and tend to receive less public sympathy; they’re penalized for striking back even under the most dire circumstances. Those stories look more like that of Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to 50 years for killing a man who had purchased the chance to rape her, or Chrystul Kizer, a 19-year-old girl who currently faces life in prison for killing the man who raped and trafficked her.
We live in a culture where male violence is still an accepted norm, yet female retaliation is a horror. Men who kill their female partners get lighter sentences than men who kill strangers. In the context of intimate partner violence, murder is seen as more excusable, not less so. And, where data suggests that women resort to murder after many years of abuse, for men, this process works in reverse: Spree killers and mass murderers often have histories of domestic violence that went unheeded by law enforcement, and many mass shootings begin with a male shooter killing his wife, female family members, and/or children. These men began their violence at home and were only apprehended when they escalated to killing strangers.
Suffering passively, up to and including at the moment of death, is the only response a woman can have to violence that does not get her punished. The Brittany Smith case, or the Rose Parker case, or any of the hundreds of cases just like them, is what justice will always look like in a system more concerned with controlling women than with making sure those women survive. Until that changes, women who try to take shelter in the law will always find themselves betrayed, as Parker was, after her attack, when she greeted the police as her saviors.
“I was afraid. I didn’t even know if [Boga] was dead or not. All I knew is that I wanted to be safe,” Parker said. “I wanted the police to be right in front of me, guarding me… I was trying to feel safe.”