When battered women fight back stereotyping can kick in


But most of all, they fought together’: Judicial attributions for sentences in convicting battered women who kill

Psychology of Women Quarterly

The topic of domestic abuse remains a controversial issue when it comes to determining punishment for battered women who use violence towards their partner. According to this study battered women who are seen as engaging in mutual violence and shared substance abuse are often regarded negatively and subject to harsher sentences.

The author analyzed the reasoning underlying judges’ sentencing decisions in 26 domestic homicide and abuse cases from 1974-2006 in Canada. She found that a judge’s reliance on each line of reasoning was associated with harsher sentencing. She also identified one judge who demonstrated resistance to these stereotyped portrayals of battered women who fight back. “Judges downgraded acts of previous partner violence by using minimizing descriptions and by emphasizing the mutuality of the violence and of substance abuse,” wrote the author. She asserted that legal systems need to recognize the complex psychological nature of victim mentality and behavior within domestic abuse cases.


The present study provides a discourse analysis of judicial attributions about battered women in Canadian sentencing decisions involving women convicted of killing their abusive intimate partners. For cases in which the accused received a jail sentence, judges downgraded acts of previous partner violence by using minimizing descriptions and by emphasizing the mutuality of the violence and of substance abuse. These discourses mobilized doubt about the relationship as abusive and limited sympathy for the accused as a battered woman. Judges’ descriptions formulated domestic abuse as discrete episodes of violence, attributed in many cases to alcohol rather than to an ongoing pattern of serious domestic abuse. These descriptions reinforced the accused’s capabilities and strength, which served to diminish the opposing claim that she was trapped in a seriously abusive relationship. Recommendations include incorporating information about battered women’s resistance efforts into traditional battered woman syndrome testimony and examining police decision making in cases of dual arrest.

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Article details
Elisabeth C. Wells (2012). But Most of All, They Fought Together”: Judicial Attributions for Sentences in Convicting Battered Women Who Kill Psychology of Women Quarterly : 10.1177/0361684312448932

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