One Woman's Story about Domestic Abuse and Justice ; the Recent Granting of Clemency to Linda White Shows How Attitudes Have Changed

Article excerpt

Linda White turns her wrist over and touches the half a dozen or so thin scars on her forearm.

"You can still see them," she says, sounding almost surprised. "That was from one of the times he tied me up. He also cut me."

"He" is her former boyfriend. A man named John Strouble. In 1989, after a year of severe psychological and physical abuse, Ms. White fatally shot him.

She used his gun - one that she says he routinely shot out the window, then put to her head to let her know he could and would kill her.

White pleaded self-defense, but was convicted of second-degree murder and was given 17 years to life in prison. But after serving more than 12 years, she has been granted clemency by New York Gov. George Pataki.

Like all stories about battering and abuse, hers is complicated. But it also provides a lens to illustrate the strides made as well as the setbacks within the nation's criminal justice system in its dealings with battered women over the past 20 years.

There are now hundreds of domestic-abuse hot lines and battered- women's shelters. And there have been major reforms in the criminal justice system, from special training for police to the establishment of protection orders in the courts.

But experts say that even as those advances raised public awareness and helped thousands of individuals, their effectiveness remains spotty. And they've also had an unintended consequence: Experts say they've fueled a backlash that makes it more difficult for women like Linda White to successfully plead self-defense.

"People had hoped that all of the interventions would make police and prosecutors and judges more savvy about what happens to battered women in violent relationships," says Holly Maguigan, a professor of political law at New York University. "But it is still very hard for people to understand that a woman like Linda White who uses serious force may be reasonable and justified."

By the numbers

During the 1990s, reported domestic violence dropped, although not as precipitously as the overall crime rate. In fact, Justice Department statistics tell a surprising story about the impact of increased awareness and services: They may have saved more men's lives than women's.

In 1976, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1,357 men and 1,600 women were killed in what the FBI refers to as "intimate partner" homicides. By 1999, the number of men killed by spouses, former spouses, or girlfriends had declined to 424, a drop of 69 percent. But the number of women killed decreased to only 1,218, a drop of just 24 percent.

Experts believe that's because shelters and hot lines have given women with access to them the ability to leave before they reach a breaking point. But abusive men do not have similar resources at their disposal. And studies still show that it is when an abused woman decides to leave that her batterer is the most likely to kill her.

"Women tend to kill when they're defending themselves, and the increased services have helped give women with access to them other options," says Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. "But men haven't really changed that much."

A characteristic case

Linda White is an example of a woman who tried to leave but says she couldn't for fear of her life. Her interactions with the social- service system also exemplify the advances, as well as the huge gaps that remain in providing help to battered women.

To start, she says she'd never heard of a "battered woman" syndrome when she met Mr. …