The Abuse Excuse: Dismissing Domestic Violence and Its Effects in the Criminal Court System
For decades, domestic violence survivors have been criminalized, prosecuted, and imprisoned for acts carried out by their abusive partners.
In January, 30-year-old Noor Zahi Salman was arrested in connection with the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre that left 49 people dead and many more injured and traumatized. Salman’s name had, until then, been largely unfamiliar to the U.S. public; she is the widow of shooter Omar Mateen, who was killed in a shootout with the police. Salman is charged with aiding and abetting terrorism because, prosecutors say, she never warned police or investigators about Mateen’s behaviors or actions.
After the massacre, Salman spoke about her husband’s violence and terror—including strangling her, pulling her hair, and threatening to kill her—as well as his efforts to isolate her from her family. Mateen’s first wife had also come forward with recollections of domestic violence during the couple’s four-month marriage, violence that only ended when her parents flew to Florida to rescue her.
But, in the wake of Salman’s arrest, prosecutors publicly expressed doubt that she had been abused, noting that none of her family members reported that to the FBI.
Salman’s case is still pending; it is unclear, at this point, the extent to which details of Mateen as a domestic abuser, or Salman’s involvement in or knowledge of the murders he planned to commit, will emerge. But regardless of the outcome of her trial, her claims of domestic violence—and prosecutors’ disbelief of these claims—raise broader questions about whether abuse survivors should be held accountable for their partners’ actions.
For decades, domestic violence survivors have been criminalized, prosecuted, and imprisoned for acts carried out by their abusive partners. Often, these were actions that they either knew nothing about or were powerless to stop. But at trial, their experiences of abuse are often downplayed or outright dismissed.
If a jury believes a survivor’s claims of abuse, as did the jurors in the second trial of Cherelle Baldwin, jurors can fully acquit her, allowing her to return home and rebuild her life after months, if not years, behind bars. Jurors may also decide not to convict survivors of the most severe charge, but still find them guilty of a lesser charges, as happened in the case of Barbara Sheehan, who was acquitted of murder but is spending five years in prison for a weapons charge after shooting her abusive husband.
If a survivor is found guilty despite her claims of abuse, a compassionate judge may decide against sentencing her to prison. But even then, mandatory sentencing sometimes leaves no choice in the matter. This was the case for Ramona Brant, a domestic violence survivor convicted of conspiracy as part of her abusive boyfriend’s drug ring. At sentencing, her judge admitted, “I absolutely am shocked by the severity of the sentence” but, under mandatory sentencing laws, had no choice but to sentence her to life imprisonment. After 21 years in prison, Brant was granted clemency by President Barack Obama and now lives with her family in North Carolina. But Brant’s happier ending is an exception, not the rule, in how the legal system treats abuse survivors.
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