Last New Year's Day, Marlene Roan Eagle, a seven-months pregnant American Indian in South Dakota, stabbed her husband through the heart after he came at her with a broken broomstick. It was established that he had beaten her on several occasions and, in July, Roan Eagle was acquitted of murder on the grounds that she acted in self-defense,
Last week Sharon McNearney was found innocent of murdering her husband. The Marquette, Mich, housewife fired a shotgun at him as he walked through the front door. Police described her as a battered housewife who had long been abused. Marquette County Circuit Court Judge John E. McDonald said the prosecution failed to prove she had not acted in self-defense.
Evelyn Ware was found not guilty of murdering her husband after pleading self-defense last month in Orange County, Calif., Superior Court, Ware shot him five times. Evidence of past beatings was used as part of her defense.
In Chicago, Juan Maldonado was shot and killed by his wife, Gloria, this year after he beat his 8-year-old son with a shoe. The state's attorney ruled there was "insufficient evidence" to warrant her prosecution.
A jury in the rural town of Bellingham, Wash., acquitted Janice Hornbuckle of first-degree murder last spring. One night, after her husband beat her and threatened her at knife-point. Hornbuckle grabbed a shotgun from her teenage son, a high school student body president, and short her husband. She had previously sought police protection on several occasions.
These and other recent cases across the nation highlight a controversial new trend in legal attitudes regarding the age-old doctrine of self-defense. Not only are lawyers increasingly using the plea in cases where wives have killed husbands, judges and juries have begun to treat such cases sympathetically.
"Thanks to an educational process, women are now using the same right men have always had to self-defense. In a case of two men shooting it out in a brawl, or one man feeling threatened by another, it has routinely often been an open and shut case of self-defense," says Cleveland attorney Christopher Stanley, who handled the Roan Eagle case.
More attention is certain to be focused on the controversy by two cases now awaiting trial.
In the first, Jennifer Patri, a Sunday school teacher and PTA president, will claim self-defense when she goes on trial this week in Waupaca, Wis.
For years, Patri claims, she was beaten and sexually abused by her auto-repairmen husband. He had also molested their 12-year-old daughter, she says, and at the time of the killing she had started divorce proceedings. "He had threatened to kidnap the children and kill her," said her lawyer, Alan Eisenberg.
When her husband entered their house one day last March, Patri shot him, buried his body in an adjacent smokehouse, and set her house on fire, according to Eisenberg.
The second case involves Roxanne Gay, widow Philadephia Eagles defensive lineman Blanda Gay. She is charged with stabbing her 6-foot-5, 255-pound husband to death in December of 1976.
Records show she repeatedly called police for protection from beatings by him, but, she says, the officers merely told him to walk around the block to cool off - and on one occasion they ended up talking football with him.
Feminists argue that one reason battered wives resort to fatal violence is that law enforcement officials and society in general minimize their problems and tend to view domestic problems as almost extra-legal situations.
The women are often given inadequate protection, and are forced to stay in the marriage for economic reasons or because they fear further assaults and death if they seek divorce, according to those who counsel battered wives. The estimate of the number of battered wives in America ranges from a FBI figure of 1 million to a high of 28 million used by Roger Landley and Richard Levy, authors of "Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis."
"There is a real Catch 22 for these women. The first or second time a wife seek help, she's told by law officials, the priest, relatives, you name it, to go home and try to patch things up. So the 14th time, she's called a masochist for staying there. And then when she shoots the guy, everyone's shocked," says margie Heller of the Women's Resource and Survival Center in Keyport, N.J. The group has started a Roxanne Gay Defense Fund. "The problem is in interpretation. If you beat up a person on the street it is treated far more seriously than if you beat your wife."
In many states, to prove self-defense the defendant has to show a reasonable apprehension of imminent danger of great bodily injury. Lawyers have effectively used evidence of past beatings and threats to show reasonable apprehension, even in cases where the husband's actions at the moment of the killing are inconclusive and may be negligible.
Lawyers have also successfully argued that it is not an unreasonable response for a physically outmatched wife to resort to a lethal weapon such as a gun or knife if her husband comes at her with his fists.
Eisenberg, the attorney in the Patri case, said Wisconsin lawyers have been aided in the past four years by a braoder interpretation of what is permissible evidence in self-defense cases. "Before, evidence was confined to that day in question. Now the state law says an entire pattern of conduct is admissible as well as all past violent behavior," said Eisenberg, "And Jennifer Patri was beaten, threatened and abused for years by this man."
Eisenberg recounted two other similar Wisconsin cases. Two years ago, Eva Mae Heygoced, often beaten by her husband ofr years, was chased one night around the bedroom by him with a bed slat. "He then tried to force her into abnormal sex, locked her in her room and came back with a gun. She took the body out and hung it from the barn rafters. She pled self-defense and was acquitted.
"The year before, Betty jean Carter, who had previously been hospitalized with a broken jaw, after her husband beat her, shot him as he advanced toward her with tists only. The first-degree murder charge was reduced to self-defense manslaughter. She was granted probation with no incarceration."
Acceptance of self-defense pleas is not universal. In Birmingham, Ala., yesterday, Hazel Kontos, 56, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of her 40-year-old husband, despite her contention that he had slapped her sround and once held her at gunpoint.
And in Philadelphia on Friday, Carolyn McKendrick was found guilty of third-degree murder in the shooting of her boyfriend, Tyrone Everett, a professional boxer. McKendrick claimed Everett had beaten her often and she feared he would do so again during a confrontation last May.
The most bizarre case recently was that of Francine Huges, a Lansing, Mich., mother of four, who poured gasoline on the floor around the bed where her ex-husband slept and lit the pool of gasoline. Charge with first-degree murder, Huges - who had been beaten, harrassed and abused by her husband for years - was found innocent by reason of insanity.
Still, some law authorities are apprehensive of the abuse of the self-defense plea by wives. Sheriff Lawrence Schmies of Waupaca, Wis., referring wonder if these people know what they are doing. If they get their way, there's going to be a lot of killings."
And New Hampshire's status of down a proposal to aid battered wives, saying the rise in feminism abetted the phenomenon. "Those women libbers irritate the hell out of their husbands," said one commissioner, Gloria Belzil.
Such views reveal "asinine chauvinism," says lawyer Eisenberg.
He then added, "If nothing else, the enlightened attitude on self-defense in these cases in a good inducement for every man to be a model husband."