Battered Women Behind Bars

Like most New Yorkers, my family was cooped up in our apartment building during Hurricane Sandy. Many of my neighbors gathered in the front foyer where we allowed our kids to ride tricycles and share toys. Hanging out in the hallway, I spent hours with people I'd never normally have a chance to get to know. Here I first became acquainted with my neighbor Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, a director at MTV.

Rohrbaugh told me she was working on a documentary about women who killed their husbands. I was taken by surprise. Why was this nice Brooklyn mother of a toddler spending her free time with murderers instead of getting manicures? Rohrbaugh immediately made my list as one of the most badass women in Brooklyn.

Her film,The Perfect Victim, tells the story of a lopsided judicial system that put victims of domestic abuse behind bars. The documentary expertly chronicles the stories of three women in Missouri who were beaten, raped, sold and almost murdered by their husbands for years prior to their desperate act of murder.

At the time of their trials, the legal system had little understanding of the Battered Spouse Syndrome and did not allow evidence of ongoing abuse to be presented to the judge and jury. As a result, these women were harshly convicted with life sentences.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Rohrbaugh about the film.

JFB: The subject matter of A Perfect Victim is rather intense and startling. What initially inspired you to make this documentary?

ER: A friend told me about the case of Shirley Lute, the oldest female prisoner in the state of Missouri. Lute was incarcerated for killing her abusive husband. I learned a group of lawyers and law students from the major law schools in Missouri came together to form the Missouri Battered Women's Clemency Coalition. This coalition sought clemency for Shirley Lute, along with 9 other women in similar situations. After years of hard work, they secured clemency for Lute, and after 33 years in prison, she was set free.

The story was fascinating and disturbing. In cases of what seemed like self-defense, how were these women still in prison over 30 years later? And how incredible that busy and overworked students and professors would work tirelessly and without pay to secure their freedom!

I contacted the Clemency Coalition's founding professor, Jane Aiken, who became a strong supporter of the documentary. She showed me the clemency videos that the law students had made. The stories were riveting. What I found fascinating was the misguided public perception of these cases. These women endured domestic abuse for years prior to their crimes. The more layers I pulled back the more interesting the stories became.

JFB: I imagine the road to making a film that deals with the criminal justice system around issues of domestic abuse was filled with obstacles. What were some of the challenges you faced in producing this film?

ER: The roadblocks to making this film were endless, particularly regarding prison and prisoner access. The governor's office was determined to give us the least possible press access to the prisoners -- obviously in hopes that we would give up.

Because of the limited access to the women, it was a challenge to earn their trust and help them understand our intention was to tell the truth about what happened to them. Through the years, the local press vilified these women, portraying them all as savage murderers without any knowledge of the ongoing abuse they suffered. I worked to earn their trust through phone calls and letters, and through their lawyers, who understood our intentions with this film.

JFB: Did the process of making A Perfect Victim shed light on anything for you personally?

ER: Making this film was such an eye-opening experience for me, Reflecting back, I realize how naïve I was at the outset. I learned a great deal about the complexity of marriage, the significance of gender roles and the impact that poverty can have on the outcomes of our justice system. I also learned how difficult it is to make people care about an issue like this. The tremendous dedication of the attorneys and lawmakers to represent and continue to fight for these women kept me inspired and motivated through the long process of making the film.

JFB: What was it like for you personally to document the traumatic narratives of these women? Did the story of their abuse, violent retaliation and harsh penalization take a toll on you? How did you take care of yourself during this process?

ER: Most of my anxiety occurred before I actually began filming. I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that I was going to be in a prison to meet a person who had killed someone. But once I arrived at the prison and met our first subject Carlene, my anxiety dissolved. Carlene was trembling with fear and I realized that this process was not about me. I was asking them to trust me with their traumatic stories and in some ways their future. I needed to be the brave one and use this opportunity to get their story out.

JFB: What would you like your audience to understand after viewing your film?

ER: I would like people to walk away with a better understanding of the criminalization of victims of domestic violence. The system is changing, but not as quickly or effectively, as we would like. Victims of domestic abuse still are judged and misunderstood. These battered women are often left to defend themselves when the system does not work for them in one way or another. If we can learn that domestic violence is not simply an individual problem but a structural and systemic issue, we can begin to make a difference.

JFB: What do you think we can do to help change a system that treats victims of abuse as hardened criminals?

ER: Many, if not all, of the women in this film would have served considerably less time if their crimes happened today. Each case is fraught with massive failures in our justice system, and as a result victims have been locked up for decades. It is essential we develop a greater understanding of the psychology of a woman who kills her abuser.

A Perfect Victim is now available on iTunes and Amazon.