The Blog

From <em>The Burning Bed</em> to Jodi Arias: The Abuse Defense Gone Wrong

One of the greatest public concerns during the Francine Hughes trial was that if acquitted, the courts would be flooded with murderous women falsely pleading self defense.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

When I was a student taking paralegal classes in Lansing, Michigan in 1977, I got a call from a friend. He wanted to know if I was interested in forming a group to help a woman who had set fire to her husband in the nearby town of Dansville. Curious as to why I should help a woman who had set fire to her husband, I asked about the crime. My friend explained that the victim had beaten her up and burned her school books and raped her. Horrible, yes, but to set him on fire? I was dubious, but agreed to meet with a coalition of women's and legal groups to find out more about the case from her attorney.

What I learned was stomach turning. The abuse Mickey Hughes had subjected his wife, and later ex-wife, Francine Hughes to was not only horrific, it was well documented in police reports, witness testimony, photographs, and other sources. The record of abuse demonstrated that not only had he raped and beaten her to a pulp and threatened to kill her repeatedly, but she had done everything possible to escape his abuse. She reported it to friends and family, she called the police, she even divorced him. Not only were those efforts futile, but after 13 years of abuse she had such low self-esteem that escaping his control was nearly insurmountable. It was only after she enrolled in the local community college to get a degree to support herself, and he responded by forcing her to burn her books before beating and raping her, that she set his bed on fire and killed him as he slept. She then drove to the police department and turned herself in.

After meeting with her attorney, a number of us formed a defense committee in support of Ms. Hughes, and to raise awareness of domestic abuse. At the time, there was virtually no public recognition of "battered woman syndrome," much less the prevalence of domestic abuse. But by the time Francine Hughes was found not guilty due to temporary insanity (self defense being hard to prove considering the victim was asleep), the national tide had turned. The Francine Hughes case was pivotal in raising awareness of how common and deadly domestic abuse is, and how difficult it can be for victims to extricate themselves from such relationships due to psychological, economic and social dependence on their abusers.

Since Francine Hughes' acquittal 35 years ago, much has changed in terms of laws, resources, and public awareness, yet the problem of deadly domestic abuse remains alarming. The Domestic Violence Resource Center (DVRC) reports that every day, up to three women and one man are killed by an intimate partner. The DVRC also reports that 1 in 12 women and 1 in 45 men will be stalked in their lifetime, with the average duration of stalking 2 years. More startling, they report that 76 percent of women who were murdered were stalked prior to their killing (they provide no comparable data for men, but it would be expected to be significantly less given there are far more male homicide victims).

One of the greatest public concerns during the Francine Hughes trial was that if acquitted, the courts would be flooded with murderous women falsely pleading self defense, a fear that has been all but unfounded. In the last three decades since The Burning Bed hit the screen starring Farrah Fawcett as Francine Hughes, countless women have pleaded self defense after killing their abusers, and most have been unsuccessful, regardless of the merits of their claims. Far fewer have been those who have falsely used the defense to justify premeditated crimes, including men who have killed women, yet acquittals are rare.

But now comes the sensationalized trial of Jodi Arias, on trial in Arizona for stabbing her former boyfriend, Travis Alexander, 27 times (mostly in the back) while he showered, slitting his throat with such force she nearly decapitated him, and shooting him in the head all in a span of 106 seconds (the murder and the moments leading up to it having been caught on camera, complete with date stamps).

Ms. Arias initially claimed she was nowhere near the crime scene, but when a bloody palm print proved otherwise, she spent two years claiming intruders did it but they let her get away. She now admits there were no intruders and that she alone killed Travis Alexander, but that she did it in self-defense.

To most anyone who has been paying attention to the trial, the evidence of premeditation is immense and the evidence of any physical abuse is nonexistent. True, Arias was Alexander's willing booty call, and true, he called her a "skank" and "three-hole wonder," which is hardly treating a woman with respect. Yet one of the leading experts on domestic abuse, Ms. Alyce LaViolette, now testifies to how the victim's treatment of Arias was exploitive and abusive, and Arias' claims of self-defense thus credible and consistent with what we have learned about abusers and their victims.

Jodi Arias had dated her victim for five months in a long distance relationship that Travis Alexander ended about a year and a half before his death. After he ended it, she moved to his city to be closer to him. She encouraged him to continue seeing her sexually, while telling him -- and the jury -- that she enjoyed the sex and was fine with him seeing other women. She never lived with him and she had her own job and income and transportation and even boyfriends.

Yet she telephoned Mr. Alexander incessantly, monitored his comings and goings, and peeked through his windows. She slashed his tires and those of a woman he was dating. She hacked his MySpace and email accounts. And she is believed to have sent threatening letters to a woman he was dating. He was, by all accounts, fed up with her behavior and wanted her out of his life, and rejoiced when she moved back to California.

After learning he was taking another woman to Cancun, Arias made one last trip to his home, telling no one where she was going, renting a car in a distant town, dying her hair after leaving home from blonde to brunette, borrowing gas cans and filling them up with gas when she approached the Arizona border (paying cash), and arriving at his home in the middle of the night for a final sexual adventure. (While two weeks prior, a gun matching the caliber used to shoot Mr. Alexander was inexplicably stolen from her grandparents' home while she was staying there, cash and other guns left untouched.)

If any man had acted in the same way with a woman he then killed violently, there would be no dispute that he was stalking her, and that she was a victim of a pathological abuser and premeditated killer. It has been by raising awareness of domestic abuse that we have learned how deadly stalking can become, particularly after a woman has ended a relationship and more critically, when the jilted lover realizes he can never have her. But because most stalkers are men and most stalking victims are women, some find it troubling to consider that a man can be a victim of a woman's obsession with having him all to herself.

Most crimes of domestic abuse and stalking are perpetrated by men, but just because the majority of victims are women, to deny that women can be controlling and abusive and stalk and kill the men they covet, is a travesty to what the last 35 years have taught us about the dynamics of abuse. To suggest that Jodi Arias was a victim of an abusive boyfriend flies in the face of everything we have learned about power, control and obsession in intimate partner and stalking crimes. Far worse, to remain blind to the evidence of stalking and premeditated homicide because of the genders of the perpetrators and/or victims, is to send us back 35 years to the years before the case of Francine Hughes and The Burning Bed brought the realities of domestic abuse out of the closet, and gave victims some help and hope, however limited it remains.

Moreover, in the years that have followed the case of Francine Hughes, we have come to recognize that not all women are perfect victims. Prostitutes, drug addicts, liars and thieves can all be victims of stalking and domestic abuse, and that does not excuse the crime. Nor does misleading a man, treating him badly, cheating on him or using him for sex, money or home repairs, justify being slaughtered.

Just because a woman treats a man badly is no excuse for killing her. And just because a man treats a woman badly is no excuse for killing him. Travis Alexander may not have respected Jodi Arias outside the bedroom, and she may well have wanted more from their relationship than he was willing to offer her. But the only way to promote informed awareness of domestic abuse and intimate partner homicide is to recognize that sometimes the abusers are not men. Sometimes they're the victims.