Abused women and today’s court system

September 1, 2017

It’s hard to know what goes on behind the closed doors of our neighbors’ homes, or what makes a marriage tick. But we can all agree that violence and abuse, both physical and emotional, against a partner, or between partners, is never acceptable. Experts assert that it contributes to feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and low self-esteem. Individuals, who more often are the female partner in a relationship, over time come to believe they are unable to leave, and feel they are trapped in a nightmarish situation until sometimes they snap, and may either kill their partner in self-defense, or because they feel they have no other out.

If life has come to the point where it’s kill or be killed, it’s a tale of desperation.

According to the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project at University of Michigan, in the U.S., police encounter more cases of domestic violence each year than all other forms of violence combined, with approximately 85 percent of victims of partner violence being the female. Each year, at least 1,200 women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends – fully one-third of all female murder victims in the United States – while less than four percent of all male murder victims are killed by a female partner. 

Two former Oakland County women, Karen Kantzler and Nancy Seaman, are currently imprisoned in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypslanti, along with 2,300 other women. Kantzler and Seaman each received life sentences for killing their husbands after years of physical and emotional abuse. Kantzler killed her husband Paul, a radiologist at Henry Ford Hospital in 1987, in what she described as an accidental shooting as she wrestled a gun away from him as he was going to shoot her. Seaman killed her estranged husband Bob in 2004, as she too feared for her life, beating him numerous times over the head with a hatchet as she ran from him after he cut her with a knife.

In Kantzler’s case, the presiding judge, former Oakland Circuit Court Judge Norman Lippitt, now in private practice, acknowledges he knew little about spousal abuse in 1988, and found her guilty of second degree murder. He said he sentenced her to life in prison, believing then that she would be free in 10 years. Sadly, 30 years on, Kantzler, who speaks in almost a whisper and bears permanent scars from years of domestic abuse, still sits in prison despite four appearances before the Michigan Parole Board. And that enrages Lippitt and Judge Barry Howard, the judge who had tried to reduce her term to time served. Lippitt spoke to the parole board at her 2015 hearing, and Howard, who sent a letter, stating they do not believe she should be in prison, that justice is not being served, and she is not a threat to society. 

The parole board, whose members are appointees of the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, are primarily former corrections and law enforcement officers or former prosecutors. They seem to lack appreciation for what the sentencing judge in the case intended, or understanding of a battered woman with no prior incidents, perfect prison records, and little likelihood of returning to jail. 

In Seaman’s case, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jack McDonald ended up throwing out the jury’s first degree murder decision eight months after her trial because her counsel followed Michigan precedence, where an expert witness can introduce a fact but not connect the defendant to it, forcing the jury to make the connection – or in Seaman’s case, not. He reduced the sentence to second degree murder, but was overturned at the appeals court; it was upheld again in federal court by Judge Bernard Friedman, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it again, stating “Battered spouse syndrome is not itself a defense under Michigan law.” 

The expert witness, Dr. Lenore Walker of Florida, is a forensic psychologist who specializes in gender violence, and developed the concept of battered woman syndrome in 1979. She testified at Seaman’s first trial, explaining what a battered woman was – but was prevented from stating that Seaman was a battered woman. Most states do not prevent experts from connecting the dots, and we believe that is an injustice that must be righted.

The Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project has rightly taken up both Kantzler and Seaman’s cases, working to attain clemency for both women. While there is still a chance that Kantzler could be paroled, Seaman is not eligible. We hope Gov. Rick Snyder hears the clarion call for clemency for these women, and does the right thing.

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