One of my mama’s favourite stories was about a black Lincoln Continental, the southern planter’s version of a Rolls-Royce. Every time she saw one, she’d say: ‘Just like Howard Dyer’s Abraham Lincoln.’ Dyer was a one-armed defence lawyer in the Mississippi Delta who bought his Lincoln with the fee he got for defending Erma Abraham after she shot her husband in the head with a .38. I haven’t seen a Lincoln Continental in years, but I came across the story again a while ago when the writer Julia Reed wrote about lady killers in an essay in The Oxford American, a magazine published in the Oxford in Mississippi named after the Oxford in England.
The magazine benefits from the hefty generosity of John Grisham, but to my knowledge, he has never written about the quirk of southern justice that enables women, especially white, churchgoing women, to kill their husbands and go free. Mrs Abraham’s defence was based on temporary insanity, described in the trial as ‘acute brain syndrome’.
Her husband’s ‘unnormal’ sexual demands had driven her so crazy that she couldn’t even remember blowing his head off, much less wrapping the gun in aluminium foil and tucking it in the deep freeze beneath the Breyer’s vanilla ice cream. Happily, her stint in the state mental hospital at Whitfield cured her, and two months later, she was free to start a new life in Memphis. I thought of Erma and Howard last week as I read about the Government’s proposals to reform the law on murder. Under these new reforms, a man who kills his wife for infidelity will be convicted of murder. So, no legal prancing around the 17th-century defence of provocation, crime passionelle or ‘acute brain syndrome’.
And a woman who kills her husband? Here, things get a little fuzzy. If a woman blows off the head of the man who’s driven her crazy for years, she will no longer have to prove pro-vocation or loss of control. (Mr Abraham was a retired postman, and I’ve noticed it’s that little word ‘retired’ that drives a lot of women crazy.) She can plead killing ‘in response to fear of serious violence’ or ‘in response to words and conduct which caused the defendant to have a ustifiable sense of being seriously wronged’.
It’s the ‘words and conduct’ that would make the judges I know uneasy. Words that are uttered as a threat to your child could lead to murder. But what about the woman who feels murderous when her husband looks up from his sudoku and asks ‘When will dinner be ready?’ an innocent inquiry you may say, but when I hear it, my husband should be grateful I don’t keep a gun in the kitchen. Murder is serious business. I’m with Erin Pizzey on this.
The founder of the original women’s refuge believes that women in fear of violence should get out of the house. They shouldn’t kill the man who’s making their life hell they should leave him. It’s not always easy Sleeping with the Enemy, in which Julia Roberts plays a wife fleeing a violent husband, is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen but murder cannot be the answer. Above all, the courts shouldn’t have a feminist view of murder. However progressive it may seem at first and the Harriet Harman sisterhood is all for it its roots are steeped in a view of women as fragile, fragrant and helpless, a myth of womanhood that doesn’t get us anywhere. Murder should be treated solemnly and seriously.
The US system of first-and second-degree murder proposed in the 2006 reforms gives judges useful discretion in sentencing. It recognises that the man who helps his terminally ill wife die has done something different from the man who blows up a crowded bus. It also keeps shades of pink and blue out of the courtroom, and I reckon that would be a great leap for womankind.