It is Not Open Season on Men

“Why should women live in anticipatory dread and hypervigilence?” Elizabeth Sheehy writes in the concluding chapter of her important new book Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts. Instead, she argues, the legal system should “shift the risk of death to those men whose aggressions have created such dehumanizing fear in their female partners”.

In Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts, Sheehy offers a compelling and startling account of the criminal justice system’s failure to protect women from the men who batter them. She begins the book by situating the issue in its historical legal context. Making the work accessible to an audience much broader than just those well-versed in criminal law, Sheehy provides the reader with ample background to understand the legal context in Canada both prior to and in the years following the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1990 recognition of battered women syndrome in R. v Lavallee.

“I could feel him coming out of my pores.” Sheehy opens Chapter 2 with the words Bonnie Mooney used to describe her intense fear of the abusive former common-law partner who broke into her home, murdered her best friend, shot her 12-year-old daughter, set her house on fire, and then shot himself. Mooney sued the federal and provincial attorneys general responsible for the police force that had ignored her complaints about the threat that this man posed.

What makes Sheehy’s examination of the legal response to women who defend themselves against their batterers so powerful is the way in which she chose to structure the project. Relying heavily on trial transcripts, Sheehy develops her analysis through faceted exploration of the legal stories of eleven women—Bonnie Mooney and ten other women, each of whom killed their abusive partners. The level of detail she provides, generated through her meticulous (and I can only imagine painstakingly laborious) use of transcripts and other available material, allows a textured analysis of these cases that would not  be possible from the judicial reasons alone.

Remarkably, she does this without drowning the reader in detail or obfuscating the humanity of the women whose stories she tells. Indeed, one of the many strengths of the book is the way in which legal critique is seamlessly woven into those stories. The book is beautifully written. It is honest and genuine and self-admittedly limited in its ability to both further our knowledge of battered women on trial while also protecting the integrity and respect of women whose lives would be once more cast into the public spotlight.

Sheehy insightfully reveals the systemic incentives for battered women to plead guilty of manslaughter rather than proceed to trial, the limits of the legal system’s ability to respond to women who use violence to escape, and the significant roles that defence counsel’s competence and strategy play in the outcome of murder cases against battered women.

Sheehy closes with an unapologetic conclusion in which she offers several well-reasoned recommendations for reform. These include reforms aimed at protecting women’s right to counsel, clarifying the legitimate boundaries of self-defence including the measures women may take to avert spousal rape, and refining prosecutorial guidelines for the prosecution of battered women. She does not advocate for homicide, notwithstanding the disturbingly imbalanced and personalized critique the work and the author were subjected to in the media when Defending Battered Women on Trial was launched. Professor Sheehy certainly does not need me to defend Defending Battered Women (she does an eloquent job of that herself).

However, I cannot help but observe the similarities between the mischaracterizations (of Sheehy’s argument) and misassumptions (about battered women) reflected in much of the media critique, and in the social and judicial attitudes that perpetuated profound injustices against battered women prior to Lavallee: Attitudes that continue to present obstacles to the adoption of a just response to the problem of domestic violence in Canada. Sheehy’s rigorous, detailed challenge to received wisdom about the legal circumstances and impact of violence faced by women like Bonnie Mooney makes Defending Battered Women on Trial an important and valuable contribution.