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7 U.S. A.F. Acad. J. Legal Stud. 97 (1996-1997)
When Battered Women Strike Back

handle is hein.journals/usafa7 and id is 105 raw text is: WHEN BATTERED WOMEN STRIKE BACK
As the prison gate slams shut, locking the convicted woman behind bars, she
is silently thankful that she is finally free. Some may wonder how a woman
sentenced to life for defending herself from an abusive spouse can feel this
way. Many abused women can identify with her. Helen knows she no longer
has to be afraid for herself or her daughter. She no longer has to live in fear
of him coming home, worrying whether she or her child will bare the force of
his anger. Her heart aches knowing she will not be there for the small girl left
behind to grow up without her by her side. Nonetheless, Helen is somehow
serene in knowing her little girl will grow up and Helen will see it, if only
from behind steel bars.1
This is not a fictional story, nor an uncommon one. It is the story of Helen
Martin, a Missouri woman convicted in 1982 for the capital murder of her
husband. He had beaten and threatened her for years and finally, in fear for
her life and the life of her five year old daughter, Helen defended herself
against him in the way women suffering with Battered Woman's Syndrome
[BWS]2 sometimes defend themselves. She struck back with a deadly result.
The way she chose to protect her life and the life of her daughter did not allow
Helen to establish a prima facie case of self-defense. The court sentenced her
to life imprisonment without parole for fifty years.3
Helen Martin's story has a happy ending. Before leaving office in 1992,
Missouri Governor John Ashcroft reviewed the sentences of Helen Martin
and Becca Hughes.4 Hughes was also serving a sentence of life imprisonment
without parole for fifty years for killing her abusive spouse. Ashcroft
commuted both sentences to life.5 Ashcroft chose to commute the sentences
of the two women because they were convicted before the 1987 adoption of
Missouri's BWS statute. Ashcroft said [i]n both of these women's cases, the
law prohibited juries from hearing about the severe abuse and trauma they
had endured[.]''6 In 1994, Missouri released its first woman to receive a
commuted sentence. Helen Martin was free after spending only fourteen
years of her life in prison.7 Becca Hughes still awaits release.8
Helen Martin may be fortunate that the BWS defense was unavailable to
her. She tried to use BWS as a defense both at the time of her trial and on
* Gail S. Zarosa, J.D. University of Missouri at Columbia; B.S. in Criminology and
Criminal Justice graudating Magna cum laude from the University of Missouri at St.
Louis; certified in Women's Studies.

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