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In Crimes of Passion, Women Get Benefit of the Doubt

New research finds women who kill their cheating lovers receive shorter sentences than men in the same situation.
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Can a woman who kills her cheating husband convince a jury she was justified?

Newly published research suggests it’s unlikely. However, she is liable to get a shorter sentence than a man convicted under the same circumstances.

That’s the conclusion of a study of love-triangle homicides by psychologists Laurie Ragatz of West Virginia University and Brenda Russell of Penn State Berks. Utilizing an Internet survey of 458 people (63 percent men), they explored the various ways ingrained attitudes and prejudices shape our views of criminal defendants.

As they report in the Journal of Social Psychology, Ragatz and Russell presented study participants with a scenario based on an actual Texas trial in 2001. In that case (which resulted in a voluntary manslaughter verdict), the male defendant walked into his lover’s home after being thrown out the day before. He shot and killed her, then shot and wounded her new lover, who subsequently called police.

Test participants were given “jury instructions” stating the defendant was charged with second-degree murder. They were given the option of convicting the defendant on that charge, going with a less-serious charge of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, or finding the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity.

To parse out levels of ambivalence, the researchers asked participants to rank, on a 1-to-7 scale, the extent to which they find the defendant guilty. They were also asked to choose an appropriate sentence length, from no prison time to 15 or more years behind bars.

For one-quarter of the participants, the gender of the characters in the story were unchanged from the real-life case. For another quarter, they were reversed, so the defendant was female and the victim male. For another quarter, both were females, and for the final quarter, both were males.

Overall, nearly 49 percent of study participants voted for voluntary manslaughter, while 46 percent went for second-degree murder. (Only 2 to 3 percent voted for either involuntary manslaughter or insanity.) Men were 1.65 times more likely than women to opt for second-degree murder.

Heterosexual female defendants were given significantly shorter sentence lengths than either heterosexual male defendants or homosexual defendants. They also scored lower than any other group on the question “To what extent do you find the defendant guilty?” And they scored the highest in terms of satisfying specific legal elements that would justify a voluntary manslaughter verdict, such as great provocation and mitigating circumstances.

“The findings from this study suggest heterosexual female defendants are more likely to benefit from using the provocation doctrine in a crime-of-passion case,” the researchers conclude. While straight women appear to be “just as likely to be convicted as all other defendants,” their punishment — at least to the extent it is determined by the jury — is apt to be less severe.

These findings seem to corroborate the conclusions of University of New Hampshire sociologist Murray Straus, who has argued domestic violence is often looked at as less serious if it is perpetrated by a woman. Specifically, Ragatz and Russell found that “violence perpetrated by heterosexual female defendants toward their unfaithful partner was perceived as more acceptable than violence perpetrated by male or homosexual defendants.”

The study can also be interpreted to support “blameworthiness attribution theory” — the notion that defendants receive harsher sentences when the victim of a crime is female. The researchers noted that “both heterosexual male and homosexual female defendants were found more culpable if the victim was female. Whether the female victim was heterosexual or homosexual did not appear to impact decisions.”

Either way, the results suggest gender-related beliefs play a major role in jurors’ decision-making processes — something that lawyers looking for an advantage, and judges interested in justice, would do well to keep in mind.