In March 1979, Bernadette Powell went on trial for her life in the Tompkins County Courthouse in Ithaca, N.Y. She was 26 years old, black, and the mother of a young son; she was accused of shooting her former husband to death in a motel room.
Powell had been a battered wife. The defense contended that Powell's former husband had taken her and their child to the motel room against her will, that he fell asleep, that as she got the gun away from him, he woke up and she, in fear of her own safety and that of the child's, shot him. The prosecution contended the killing was premeditated. Powell was found guilty and given the minimum sentence: 15 years to life.
Powell's story is grippingly recounted in a new book, "Everyday Death," by Ann Jones, author of "Women Who Kill," who sat in on the trial as part of her research for that book. Jones watched from the periphery as appeals were turned down and finally decided to write a book about the Powell case.
"Thanks to 'The Burning Bed' the television movie about a battered wife who kills her husband and all the consciousness-raising" the public and the courts know more about battered women, Jones said. "People are more willing to understand the plight of a battered woman . . . who blows up. But people who don't fit that pattern aren't seen as battered women. Powell did get orders of protection, she did get out of her marriage, she did get a divorce, she moved, she got another house. She got a job. She did everything to put together a new life."
Her marriage had been over a year when the shooting occurred, and during the trial she appeared singularly composed, said Jones. There was no expert testimony on the long-term effects of chronic, severe battering. Powell never had a psychiatric examination to determine her mental state at the time of the shooting. She claimed the gun belonged to her husband; the prosecution had witnesses who said she had purchased a gun. The state allowed indigent defendants only $300 to hire expert witnesses and private investigators.
Powell's jurors were white, and most were male. Her lawyer had defended only one homicide case -- and lost. He tried to get her to plea bargain, but she refused, determined to prove her innocence. She tried to get another lawyer but was dissuaded by the judge. The prosecutor was an accused wife-beater, an argument cited in a motion for a new trial and in one appeal, but both were denied.
"At the time of the incident she was suffering from extreme emotional disturbance," said Jones. "She had all the symptoms of women in long-term battering situations . . . anxiety, paranoia, sleep disorders. She had become a compulsive housekeeper and slept the rest of the time. She had significant memory loss. That made it hard to defend herself. She wasn't competent to stand trial. I think she was under great stress at the time, not only from the stuff a battered wife went through, but all the stress of the breakup of her marriage, moving, getting a job, taking care of a child.
"Because she seemed to be in control, as so many battered women do . . . it made her seem all the more cold and calculating." The prosecution, said Jones, "was able to turn it around and allege that she was a masochist, a cold, heartless" woman. A juror later told Jones: "We all wondered why, if it was as bad as she said it was, she didn't just leave a whole lot sooner. Personally, I think she asked for it. But even if she didn't deserve it, she didn't have to make such a big thing out of it."
Jones, a former English professor who set up the women's studies program at the University of Massachusetts, said the defense never made Powell's case effectively. "Women are entitled to have courts consider the abuse they've suffered, either as part of self-defense or mitigating circumstances, all the way through the trial to the sentencing. Most attorneys aren't prepared to do it. Most don't know anything about it."
This June, Powell received a bachelor of science degree from Mercy College through a program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She worked in the prison library and attended classes at night, graduating magna cum laude. Her son, who lives with relatives, was at the ceremony. "She feels the only way she can be a mother to him is by setting an example," said Jones.
Bernadette Powell is not eligible for parole until she has served 15 years. Her son will be 22.
Perhaps if she'd been tried today, when people have a greater understanding of family violence, she'd have had a better chance. Then maybe not: She wasn't John Hinckley or Claus von Bulow.
She was poor, female and she was black.