Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jailing Women Who Choose to Live

Jailing Women Who Choose to Live
By Matthew Behrens
                  Anyone wandering into Ottawa’s Courtroom 30 this week might be taken aback seeing the slight, 26-year-old Ashley White standing before a judge who could sentence her to 14 years in prison. Last year, White was declared guilty of aggravated assault (and acquitted of attempted murder) for stabbing her abusive former boyfriend after he beat her so severely that she required facial reconstruction surgery.
                  The man who put White under the surgeon’s knife, Patrick Halcro, was mysteriously never charged with the assault, even though he admitted in court that in fits of rage and jealousy, he punched her, claiming, “I used proportional force. I felt threatened.”
                  White suffered a shattered nose and cheekbone in addition to post-concussion syndrome and a diagnosis of PTSD. As one press report noted, “Medical evidence suggested her head trauma and the shock of seeing her face bathed in blood could have placed her in a state where she wouldn't have known what she was doing when she stabbed Halcro. As for Halcro, the knife blade nicked his lung but a trauma surgeon said the injury was relatively minor.”  The Citizen reported that White was punched to the floor  after telling Halcro to leave her apartment, and she testified that “I ended up on my back and he was standing above me with his legs either side of my body…He said, ‘I’m trained to kill and will kill you’ or words to that effect…I thought I was going to die.”
                  Four years after the original beating, White remains bound by restrictive bail, trying to pay down a six-figure legal bill with lengthy shifts at an east end sports bar. Her current conundrum raises serious questions about a legal system that still fails to heed the brutal context reported last year by the World Health Organization, which concluded that more than a third of all women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, a phenomenon it declared “a global health problem of epidemic proportions.”
                  Why is Halcro walking the streets freely while White nervously ponders a penitentiary term? Will the sentencing judge consider the fact that in choosing to live, White thankfully refused to end up as part of the annual “femicide” report issued by the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, a grim reminder of women’s lives snuffed out by men?
                  Indeed, why do we continue to react with shock and judgment when – in a country where the almost 600 women’s shelters are constantly filled to capacity and women’s services are the first to go on the chopping block – some women feel they have no choice but to use force to defend themselves against abusive men in their lives?
                  That question is soundly addressed by the University of Ottawa’s Elizabeth Sheehy, whose recent Defending Battered Women on Trial brilliantly examines the complexities of key court cases affirming women’s right to self-defense against abusers. Yet when the book was released last fall, it stirred  controversy: rather than feeling rage about the shockingly high levels of global violence against women, some wondered why women were being reminded that legal precedents existed to protect them if they dared to take the actions necessary to live?
                  It’s a question that’s also haunted Marissa Alexander, now facing a possible 60-year sentence for choosing to live. Alexander, an African-American mother of three in Florida, did not kill her abusive ex-partner when he physically attacked her and threatened her with death only nine days after she gave birth. Instead, she fired a warning shot into the ceiling to scare him off, and as a result was sentenced to 20 years behind bars.
                  During her trial, Alexander recounted numerous incidents of severe physical abuse she suffered including choking, attempted strangulation, and other incidents that required hospitalization. Her abusive ex-husband admitted in a sworn affidavit, “I honestly think [Marissa] just didn’t want me to put my hands on her anymore, so she did what she feel like she have to do to make sure she wouldn’t get hurt, you know. …The gun was never actually pointed at me.”  
                  While an appeals court rejected her contention that she should have been granted “Stand Your Ground” immunity from prosecution (under which an individual can use deadly force if “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm”), it did confirm, in granting her a new trial, that Alexander “was charged with aggravated assault but – under any possible review of the evidence – inflicted no injury.”     
                  Alexander is now under house arrest, while the man who threatened to take her life walks free and the chief prosecutor is now seeking 60 years in prison if Alexander is convicted a second time.  
                  Ashley White and Marissa Alexander, staring down the full force of the state, force us to seriously consider a final question: why do we deny what Sheehy calls “the stark choices that women face when men will not let them go” and subsequently try to jail women who choose to live?

Matthew Behrens is a writer and community organizer in Perth, Ontario.