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.