Domestic Violence in the Workplace: Why It Matters and How to Stop It

As a second-grade teacher at Holy Trinity School in El Cajon, California, Carie Charlesworth probably thought that she was doing the responsible thing by telling the school’s principal about the possibility of her violent ex-husband showing up at the school. Following ‘a trail of restraining orders and 911 calls,’ according to one San Diego reporter, Charlesworth’s concerns escalated earlier this June when she was forced to call the sheriff’s department three times in a day, and she went to her supervisor with her concerns. These fears were warranted – her ex-husband was spotted in the school parking lot later that day, sending the school into lockdown and ultimately leading to his arrest on two felony charges.

But it was too late for Charlesworth and her four children, all of whom attended the school. The family was placed “on an indefinite leave,” and despite her husband’s arrest, Charlesworth was eventually fired from Holy Trinity and forbidden from teaching at any diocesan school. While Charlesworth has gone to the media with her story in an attempt to bring public attention to her situation, and will be filing a lawsuit with uncertain likelihood of succeeding, she is currently jobless and facing her abusive ex-husband’s imminent release from jail. Unfortunately, Charlesworth is not alone – both in experiencing domestic violence at her workplace and in losing her job for domestic-violence-related reasons.

Why Employers Should Care about Domestic Violence

At the point where almost one-third of American women report being physically or sexually harassed by a partner at some point in their lives, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that domestic violence has very real implications for American workplaces. At the very least, domestic violence permeates the workplace because victims simply cannot escape its effects. Abuse causes its victims to arrive late to work or miss days of work due to injuries, and when they are present, victims frequently have difficulty concentrating or performing their duties to the best of their abilities. As of 2003, the annual cost of lost productivity as a result of intimate partner violence was estimated at about $728 million; this violence has a sizable impact on companies’ bottom lines (and here’s a handy cost calculator where companies can see exactly how much IPV will cost them). On top of direct costs to productivity, companies often have to foot direct medical expenses due to IPV, which generates $4.1 billion in direct medical and mental health care service costs each year. This all, of course, is just factoring in the costs incurred on victims – abusers also lose time and productivity, and frequently use company resources like phone lines to continue their harassment.

What should be more frightening to employers, though, is the fact that domestic violence frequently intrudes into the workplace in a much more tangible and dangerous manner. A study found that 74% of employed female victims of domestic violence were harassed by their partner while at work. And these intrusions do get violent. 24% of total workplace violence is related to personal relationships, and one-third of the women killed in workplaces between 2003 and 2008 were killed by current or former partners – making domestic violence homicides the second-leading cause of female workplace deaths. These homicides often don’t end with just one death, either; abusers will sometimes attack coworkers or bystanders as well.

It’s clear that any company or organization which cares about the rights of victims, protecting its other employees, saving costs, or some combination of the above should also care about developing a coherent, effective, domestic violence policy. But it’s also clear that many, many employers are completely off-the-mark.

Missing the Mark

It’s possible to grant that Holy Trinity School officials thought they were doing the right thing for their employees (and in this case, their students) when firing Charlesworth. So too, probably, did the 60% of employers who fired an employee experiencing domestic violence in a 2005 study in Maine. And the employers who fired 130,000 stalking victims in the twelve-month period between 2005 and 2006. Firing the victim actually seems to be a pretty common reaction to the potentiality of workplace domestic violence. Get rid of the victim, get rid of the incentive for the violent abuser to come knocking at the front door, and everything will be fine, right? But this heavy-handed approach fails to account for the fact that when an employer fires a victim instead of utilizing an effective domestic violence policy, it makes things worse for the victim and the workplace itself.  

First of all, it puts the victim in a huge amount of danger, both psychological and physical. There’s the obvious injustice of blaming the victim of a crime for something that’s entirely outside her control, especially since in many workplace domestic violence cases the victim has already sought some form of separation from or recourse against the abuser. The ‘this is your fault and you deserve to take the fall’ signal that a termination sends revictimizes the victim and reinforces the idea that the abuse was somehow her responsibility to avoid. But beyond the psychological harm that firing a victim may exact, it also cuts off her sense of financial security in such a way that she finds herself less able to extricate herself from an abusive situation in the first place. Three-quarters of victims report staying with their abusers longer because of economic concerns; severing a victim from any financial stability she previously had makes it even less likely that she’ll leave in the future. Any employer who recognizes a situation of domestic violence and responds by firing the victim takes a crucial opportunity for support, guidance, and referral to useful agencies and turns it into a tool of the abuser. Maybe employers don’t have a legal responsibility to consider the interests of their employees to this extent, but it certainly seems that in certain cases – situations of domestic violence included – they have the moral obligation to look beyond the bottom line and help an employee in trouble.  

On top of that, firing a victim of domestic violence could be bad for that company or organization as well. Legally, it’s possible that termination on the grounds of someone being a victim of domestic violence constitutes a Title VII equal employment opportunity violation – at least in certain, very clear cases. And Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island have legal protections specifically to prevent this kind of situation. Several other states have similar laws in the works, and it’s possible that in five or ten years, future Holy Trinity Schools will become few and far between. One wrongful death suit, related to a company’s negligence in protecting an employee from a violent former partner, cost the company $850,000. Companies already have a legal incentive to deal with domestic violence in an effective and victim-friendly way, at least in some states.

The main reason why employers should care about helping victims of domestic violence, though, is this: they can be practically certain that there will be more. Any problem that affects one-third of the female population is bound to appear again, and by firing the first victim to come forward, an organization simply sends the signal to the next victim that she will meet the same fate if she ever lets her secret out. At the very least, any employee whose productivity is affected by domestic violence will simply silently drain company funds, instead of connecting with a supervisor for support and possibly getting the help she needs to break free. And the next Carie Charlesworth, instead of giving the school principal warning to send the school into lockdown if her abuser shows up, might stay silent until he appears one day to threaten her in front of her students – or worse.

What Needs to Change

At first glance, this seems like a conundrum. Surely, you think, I’m not suggesting that the Holy Trinity School should just have left itself open to a potentially violent intruder who has consistently violated legal orders in the past. But that’s exactly the problem – employers who fire victims often do so because they think they have no other choice than endangering the safety of all of their other employees, when there actually are other possible courses of action.

This is not to say, of course, that any workplace domestic violence strategy is completely foolproof. But it does seem self-evident that some routes may be more effective than base termination. A victim can take paid leave while seeking civil protections or criminal charges. She can go to counseling in an effort to regain lost productivity and confidence. She can work out a safety plan with her employer that will not put anyone’s lives at risk. Here is a model domestic violence policy for employers to adopt, which gives victims financial guarantees while seeking help and encourages an open environment where no one is afraid to ask for support. And here are some guidelines for employers to keep victims and the rest of their employees safe from potential incidents of violence: make sure security is aware of possible issues; encourage employees to include the workplace on any protective orders; consider altering the employee’s work schedule; and so on. A combination of victim-friendly employment policies and stringent responses to possible threats can help keep everyone in the workplace safe, without the cost of endangering a victim.  

Making Bystander Intervention Effective

For anyone in the Louisville area, I strongly recommend going to the next Green Dot training hosted by The Center for Women and Families. I attended their day-long session yesterday and was pleasantly surprised at what I got out of it, especially since I’ve sat through more bystander intervention trainings than I can count over the past few years as a product of attending a university which is desperately seeking to overcome its reputation for ignoring sexual assault. I had always felt that these training sessions were irritatingly surface-deep and uninformative, providing gems of wisdom like “watch out for your friends at parties” and – on a good day – “if you see behavior that looks coercive, step in and say something.” Admittedly, it’s always good to remind people that they may want to designate a responsible person to look out for their friend group at the local club, or that they can feel empowered to intervene in situations even when they don’t know any of the participants. But I could never shake the feeling that these training programs operated off the conception that as soon as people realize that a problem exists, common sense will do the rest – ignoring the fact that oftentimes people are aware of a problem, but lack the understanding of how they can solve it.

The Need for Getting Involved

Make no mistake: sometimes it is difficult to discern whether a situation is indicative of dating violence or other forms of intimate partner violence, and a good bystander intervention program will educate participants on how to identify these scenarios when they occur. This is one thing that my college violence prevention programs did a decent job of reinforcing – they illustrated the various types of violence which may exist, from an abusive relationship to a coercive hookup. The Green Dot training took things a step further and discussed in more detail how to recognize the signs of dating abuse when they occur, which is something the other programs paid only cursory attention to and which is oftentimes more difficult than recognizing a couple at a party where one member is clearly too drunk to give consent.

But a good violence prevention program needs to go beyond the mere identification stage and provide concrete advice on how to intervene in potentially violent or abusive relationships when they occur. We’d all like to think that we’re good enough people to step in when a situation is clearly abusive or violent, or at least good enough people to do something – like calling the police or asking an authority figure to call security. But the unfortunate truth is that even in the clearest instances of IPV, people rarely intervene. ABC’s “What Would You Do?” conducted an ‘experiment’ on the subject by secretly filming two actors pretending to be a couple sitting on a bench in a public park, with the man pretending to be increasingly violent toward the woman. Shockingly, they found that only 10 percent of the people passing by the scene would intervene –many people clearly knew that something was wrong, but refrained from even calling the police. Domestic violence advocates will report witnessing scenes of clear and evident physical abuse where the vast majority of passerby simply walk or drive by.

This is the real issue when it comes to preventing IPV. It’s easy to shrug off domestic or dating violence as something that only occurs behind closed doors, something that we won’t see happening and therefore have no obligation to correct. But the truth is that even though there are cases that will slip below the public radar, there are also cases that occur in the open and still don’t attract intervention. Even more frequently, there are cases where an issue might not be evident to the majority of people, but is evident to a close friend who needs to make the decision about whether to say something. No one can stop every single instance of violence. But we can at least make the commitment to intervening when we realize that intervention is necessary.

The Why’s of Bystander Nonintervention (and the How’s of Intervention)

Enter the Green Dot message: “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” Green Dot training focuses on the idea that there are only a few actual perpetrators of violence (‘red dot’ generators) who are vastly outnumbered by the rest of society. When these others, who aren’t actually inflicting violence upon anyone themselves, ignore and permit IPV, they generate their own ‘red dots’ which send the message throughout society that this violence will be tolerated. When, conversely, someone intervenes in an episode of violence, they generate a ‘green dot’ which helps transform society as a whole into a place that will not accept violence of any kind. People only get away with violent behaviors when others let them.

The place where the Green Dot training really steps in, though, is in identifying why people make the decision not to act. It’s easy to look at the people on “What Would You Do?” with contempt, but most people have probably been in some kind of scenario where they regretted not stepping in and intervening (in fact, one woman who actually did physically intervene in the “What Would You Do?” segment later explained that she did so because of her guilt for not intervening in a previous episode of domestic violence she had witnessed). Green Dot training explains the psychology behind ‘bystander effects,’ then addresses these obstacles when presenting intervention techniques.

Specifically, the training identifies a series of factors which prevent bystanders from intervening. There’s the typical “diffusion of responsibility” effect – typically linked to the Kitty Genovese story – in which someone is less likely to intervene if they are one of many in a group, assuming that someone else will take charge of intervention instead. The similar “pluralistic ignorance” phenomenon demonstrates that people are less likely to act on a problem if no one around them seems to be doing anything about it; unfortunately, diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance effects feed into one another to produce a perfect storm of inaction. A different, but no less pernicious, effect is “evaluation apprehension” – the fear of misinterpreting a scenario and being negatively judged as a result. And, of course, there are the ever-present fears of going against social norms or being criticized by one’s friends for getting involved in a ‘private affair,’ as well as fear for one’s safety or the safety of the person being abused. (The last concern, in fact, is an incredibly important one to address, and so I’ll discuss it briefly here to clarify any misconceptions. People sometimes don’t get involved in episodes of intimate partner violence because they are worried that this might generate backlash against the victim later on. But intervention is oftentimes an incredibly powerful tool for signaling to a victim that the abuse she is experiencing is wrong and out-of-the-ordinary, and therefore a crucial tool for helping victims to leave abuse situations.)

These bystander intervention concepts may have fancy academic backing in the form of psychological studies, but can just as easily be boiled down into a series of social and individual factors that all people experience to some degree. Green Dot training asks participants to reflect upon their experiences as bystanders and their personal limitations to identify what their weaknesses may be in future interventions. Then, the training focuses on developing responses to violent situations that mesh with individual participants’ strengths and weaknesses. For example, a participant who is afraid of drawing unwanted social attention might choose to delegate responsibility to police or more outgoing friends, while one who is worried about misjudging a situation may simply choose to distract the participants in an argument to see if that diffuses some tension.

This, to me, is the most important aspect of the Green Dot training. Just as my previous bystander intervention trainings didn’t scrape the surface of wide swathes of violence prevention and intervention, they were equally unrealistic in that they frequently seemed to expect participants to become superheroes when it came to actually stepping in and doing something. They only taught direct confrontation, ignoring the fact that asking potential bystanders to go against all of their reservations and personal limitations to stop violence might just result in bystanders not acting at all. Green Dot sent the message, on the other hand, that one is justified in doing whatever one is comfortable with – just as long as something gets done. Other bystander intervention programs should take note.

Criminalize Revenge Porn Now

All-too-frequently, lawmakers fail to play catch-up with the technological advances surrounding them in society; by the time they can see the tangible implications of these advances and act on them, countless people have already been harmed. Equally frequently, the legal system (and society at large) disregards or downplays the plights of victims of relationship violence due to a morass of sexist attitudes and discriminatory procedures. ‘Revenge porn,’ or the nonconsensual distribution of nude photos or video, sits at the uncomfortable crossroads of these two gaps in the law.

Beyond Humiliation: Revenge Porn’s Real Impact

No one should ever have to go through the process of having highly personal  images of oneself scattered for the world to see on the Internet – even worse, at the hands of someone the victim trusted enough to share this sort of media with in the first place. This alone constitutes a form of psychological torment that allows the revenge porn publisher a degree of power over his victim, even from hundreds of miles away and months or years after the relationship ends.

But truly malicious aggressors can do much more than that. This article shares the ordeal of Holly Jacobs, who not only had the awful experience of finding explicit photographs of herself online, but also the much worse experience of active harassment at the hands someone she believes to be her ex. He targeted every aspect of her life: hacking her Facebook profile with the photographs; affixing her name and contact information to the images he posted online; emailing them to her boss and co-worker; and tailoring the titles of the videos he posted so as to appear high on a search results page when her students Googled her qualifications as a teaching assistant. Jacobs attempted to move on with her life, changing her name and starting End Revenge Porn, a forum and advocacy hub for victims. But her attacker was still at it, posting photos with information about where she would be presenting her thesis at an American Psychological Association conference and encouraging viewers to attend her presentation and proposition her. Jacobs is now participating in a criminal suit against her ex, Ryan Seay, who is charged with stalking, harassment by use of personal identification information, and unlawful publication.

This may sound like a particularly bad example of cyber-aggression, and it is certainly true that many revenge-porn-posters are content to simply post nude photos of their exes, maybe with a name or contact information attached, and maybe with a little rant discussing how much of a ‘slut’ or a ‘bitch’ their ex is to justify how much she deserves it. As mentioned before, it’s not a stretch to say that this can still psychologically devastate a victim – especially when she has to worry every time she applies for a job that her potential employer will Google her name and reject her as a result of the images. And it’s also the unfortunate case that Jacobs’ experience is replicated, in parts or its entirety, in the stories of women all across the country.

The Road to Criminalization

Equally unfortunate is the fact that there exists limited legal recourse for victims to either salvage their online reputations or bring their aggressors to justice. Some revenge porn sites allow women to remove their photos – if they pay sizable fees – and third-party reputation management sites will charge as much or more simply to push the photos onto a later page of search results. The criminal justice system is woefully inadequate, given that police and prosecutors see the images as having been freely produced in the first place. And a variety of factors – the poor applicability of specific civil laws, the significant time and financial investments required, and the desire not to incur even more undesired attention upon oneself – conspire to make civil suits unlikely as well. Free speech advocates come down on the side of revenge porn distributors and site hosts. What all this means is that – just as victims of physical domestic violence lose faith in the justice system when they turn there first after an episode of violence – victims of revenge porn quickly learn that no one is willing to protect their interests as they see their lives torn apart around them.

I mentioned before that lawmakers are oftentimes slow to wise up to the full implications of the technology developing around them. That’s a charitable explanation for why only one state – New Jersey – has a statute explicitly prohibiting the distribution of nonconsensual pornography. Florida lawmakers introduced a potential statute criminalizing revenge porn, but it stalled in the legislature last May. California legislators are attempting to push through a similar bill right now, which faces criticism on the grounds of vagueness and the potential to undermine other legitimate exercises of free speech. But even if the California state senate and governor approve this legislation, that’s still only one state out of 49 that have yet to criminalize this kind of behavior. It’s worth noting that New Jersey only successfully passed its legislation after the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old college student who killed himself after his roommate covertly filmed and showed others his romantic encounter – and the California bill is up for discussion only after 15-year-old Audrie Potts hanged herself after three boys sexually assaulted her at a party and posted pictures of the incident online. Maybe eventually, it won’t take similarly horrific incidents to propel other states into taking action.

Victim Blaming: It’s Everywhere

There are, of course, solid legal obstacles to passing such legislation that must be considered before (hopefully) state legislatures decide that the rights of victims in this instance are more important. But it’s likely that a good part of the inadequate response to revenge porn is grounded in society’s tendency to trivialize the abuse of women in all its forms.

This problem pervades media coverage of revenge porn issues – this CBS Detroit article on the California bill refers to victims as “sexy exes” and concludes with a pithy “The bottom line: Cameras, bedrooms and exes don’t mix.” But it’s even more evident in the responses that victims receive when they seek support from their peers: things like “You should have known never to give a guy those sorts of pictures” or “I’ve sent guys this sort of photo before, but only ones I knew wouldn’t post them.” To some, victims are making a big deal out of nothing (and for them, The Revenge Porn Challenge offers you a tongue-in-cheek yet compelling response). And others, even if they recognize the significant impact revenge porn can have on someone’s life, congratulate themselves for being smart enough to avoid that kind of scenario while simultaneously deriding the victims for not being as savvy. These are exactly the type of responses one sees to less technologically-oriented intimate partner violence, and they are exactly the type of misinformed responses which make the victim feel even more vulnerable than before. There are differences between ‘conventional’ relationship abuse and ‘newer’ types of cyber harassment, but society’s treatment of victims and their plights is one of the most striking similarities.

There may be those who are still convinced that some of the blame must be incumbent upon the victim; I will admit that for a while, I bought into the ‘if you don’t want explicit pictures of yourself online, then don’t take those pictures’ camp. But we should remember that these kinds of situations aren’t always examples of perfect consent in the first place. The kind of guy who’s willing to violate his ex-partner’s trust by posting revenge porn might also be the kind of guy who has the upper hand in controlling his partner already, and thus may be able to convince her to take or send him explicit images even if she initially protests.

On top of that, though, any relationship must contain some degree of intimacy, and some implicit assumption of confidence. There is any number of aspects of a relationship someone might not want shared upon a breakup – snide remarks about a boss, friend, or family member, intimate sexual details, or even something as simple as the alarm code to a house. It’s not the victim’s fault if she gives a pair of keys to her boyfriend, he refuses to return them after they break up, and then he burgles her house – there was no reason for her to suspect at the time that giving him access to her residence was a risky move. Similarly, women shouldn’t be faulted for presuming that their partners are not the kinds of sleazebags who would upload their nude photos to a website in the event that they ended the relationship.

Let’s make something clear: any kind of move on the part of someone’s partner or ex-partner to humiliate them or make their life miserable, even from afar, is unacceptable. It’s an expression of a need for control over the victim that society ought to condemn. It doesn’t matter if the person initially consented to the taking of the images – publicly violating their trust takes their initial consent and warps it into something completely unrecognizable. Educating women about the need to not trust their partners with explicit images is only a band-aid solution to the problem, and one which completely misaddresses the issue at hand. What we need is actual legal action – always a challenge for advocates against intimate partner violence – that specifically and rigorously sanctions those who distribute explicit images without the consent of the person depicted. New Jersey’s taken a step in the right direction, but it’s time for California and the rest of the country to follow suit.

Domestic Violence and “Crimes of Passion”

Let’s talk pop culture. I admit it, I read the Twilight books. And I also didn’t realize – because I was 13, lovestruck, and confused – that Edward’s creepy, obsessive behavior was not okay. When he watches Bella from her bedroom window, stops her from interacting with one of her best friends, or even presents the threat of a forced abortion later in the book series, he’s being abusive. But I, like every other one of Stephenie Meyer’s teenage fans, thought it was so romantic that Edward loved Bella so much that he just couldn’t bear to part with her, or deal with any real or perceived threat to their relationship in a healthy and emotionally mature way. There have been lots of rants on this subject, so I will say no more.

Many – including the media, judges and lawyers, and people on the street – have a tendency to paint episodes of domestic violence as “crimes of passion” conducted in the “heat of the moment.” Maybe this is because it’s more comforting to think of abusers as brash and emotional, rather than calculatingly binding their victims in ever-tightening nets of control. Or maybe, it’s because current culture and even the oldest texts of the Western Canon glorify abuse perpetrated in the name of love.  Regardless of the roots of this misconception, one thing is certain. Framing abuse as the ultimate expression of passion does no one any favors – except maybe the abusers themselves.

The Tari Ramirez Trial

On a real and very serious note, take a look at the case of Claire Tempongko, a 28-year-old who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Tari Ramirez. Tempongko had been a victim of abuse for over a year and a half, repeatedly calling the police, filing and receiving protective orders, and seeing her abusive ex “successfully” complete batterer’s intervention training. In 2000, shortly before her death, Tempongko filed two police reports, saying that Ramirez had strangled her and given her death threats over the phone. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “a judge issued a stay-away order after the first report, but police officers did not try to serve it on Ramirez and instead said they had referred it to probation officials, who said they never received it. Police did not classify the second report as domestic violence.” Ramirez finally stabbed Tempongko in her apartment, in the vicinity of her children, to the point where she could barely breathe and died before making it to the hospital.

This seems to be a textbook case of sustained abuse, one which is unfortunately all-too-common.  If the first signs of abuse could be regarded as a man’s passion getting out-of-control (and even this is doubtful), a prolonged pattern of abuse certainly cannot be brushed aside in the same way. A jury seemed to agree – Ramirez was convicted of second-degree murder, with a sentence of 16 years to life in prison. His defense had been that he had ‘flown into a rage’ after Tempongko told him that she had aborted his child, leading him to kill her. If the defense had succeeded, he would only have been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a significantly less serious charge.

But the California court which heard his appeal in 2011 ruled, on a 2-1 decision, that Ramirez was entitled to a new trial due to the trial judge “misleading” jurors about the option of a manslaughter verdict.  The question came down to what the legal standard for voluntary manslaughter is – the judge in Ramirez’s original trial had instructed jurors to measure his actions against how an average person would have reacted in the same circumstances, while this appellate court viewed the standard for manslaughter as the more lenient determination that the circumstances would cause the average person to act ‘rashly.’ This court reinforced and legitimized the idea that we can and should totally disregard a record of sustained domestic abuse, focusing only on actions committed ‘in the heat of the moment.’ An abusive relationship is ‘tense,’ ‘in need of work,’ or ‘stormy’ – an actual term used by the state attorney and then denied in the California Supreme Court’s consideration of the case – and murder committed as the conclusion of that abuse is similarly mitigated.

There’s good news in this particular case: on June 3rd, the California Supreme Court reinstated Ramirez’s conviction of second-degree murder in a 7-0 ruling, reaffirming that Ramirez’s evidence of provocation was too weak to constitute a sufficient defense. The original trial judge’s definition of manslaughter was found to be sufficiently broad, and the court ruled that the jury was correct in its original determination that provocation did not apply under this standard. Ramirez will face the full extent of justice that he was originally found to deserve.

But the fact remains that two judges on a significant state court saw otherwise, and the actual Supreme Court finding was based more on an interpretation of the legalese surrounding ‘provocation’ than a nuanced interpretation of the issues surrounding domestic violence. Maybe in this case, the lawyer who referred to Tempongko and Ramirez’s relationship as “stormy” received a rebuke by the Supreme Court justices. And maybe in this case, seven judges recognized that one instance in a long string of abusive encounters doesn’t qualify as having been “provoked” to any significant degree. But the fact remains that the same kinds of defenses spring up across the country and are frequently disturbingly successful.

Letting Men Off the Hook

Of course, the American criminal justice system is set up to protect people from the state – and this means implementing exacting standards of evidence at trials, as well as a number of other mechanisms designed to protect the defendant. I agree as much as anyone else that there can be bias in a court setting against the defendant, and that it’s probably better to err on the side of letting a guilty person go free than forcing an innocent person to languish in prison. And it seems clear that certain protections – limitations on the sorts of evidence that may be admitted in trial, for instance – are occasionally instrumental in protecting innocent defendants from these sorts of biases. Part of the uphill struggle advocates against domestic violence must face is working against the system – trying to prove an incredibly private violation in a system that intentionally excludes unverifiable evidence from trial. Maybe, one might think, the appellate court that initially overturned Ramirez’s murder conviction was just playing by these rules and protecting the defendant in a murky situation (putting aside, of course, the fact that twelve jurors and later seven Supreme Court judges saw no murkiness whatsoever). In the best case scenario, abusers consistently get let off easy because this is a necessary price to pay for a system that protects the defendant. Maybe.

But such a conclusion seems dramatically at-odds with the stark reality that when women kill their intimate partners, they are frequently charged with a degree of homicide greater than the facts allow, prevented from offering their long history of abuse as a defense, and assigned longer sentences than men convicted of similar degrees of homicide. Tari Ramirez could claim that the news that his ex-girlfriend, who he had been abusing for years, aborted his child was suitable grounds for killing her – but a woman who has been abused for years by her partner frequently cannot successfully claim the same level of mitigation, and goes to prison for years on end.

Of course, this is undoubtedly the product of a gender bias which pervades the justice system at every level, as well as the tendency to downplay the suffering victims of domestic violence experience.  More specifically, though, there’s a disconnect between the ability of a man to paint his crime as an act of passion and the ability of a woman to do the same. Some of this is due to the mere facts of physical difference between men and women. When a man finds out – or imagines – that his girlfriend has been cheating on him, he can strangle, stab, or shoot her then and there. When a woman realizes that her only way out of an abusive situation is to kill her partner, she must wait for a time when she can do so at minimal risk to herself. This leads to the misconception that women murder out of cold calculation while men kill due to the heat of passion – but just as a woman killing her partner could hardly be accurately referred to as a murder in cold blood, Tari Ramirez stabbing his ex-girlfriend was not an isolated act of anguish and rage he would never have been capable of in an “unprovoked” state.

The system needs to recognize this – to recognize that even though mitigation or lower levels of offenses are necessary in any functional criminal justice system, the way they are being applied to intimate partner murders is too often a perversion of justice. In this sham, those who are truly guilty of murder receive lesser treatment, while those who were merely defending themselves are flogged with the full force of the law. This is not to say that the system never works – it did in California, just this week. But it’s not enough to rely upon a state supreme court to return reason to a legal decision gone haywire. There need to be more checks, and there must be a greater understanding of the issues involved, from the initial arrest to the ultimate trial.

Practical oversight of the legal system is certainly important in combating the sort of abuse-as-passion bias I talked about earlier. But this is something society as a whole is guilty of in spades. Until the misconception is rectified at the societal level – until Twilight doesn’t provide the template for a romantic relationship that the jurors in an intimate partner murder trial may very well buy in to — no number of handed-down judicial decisions can compensate.