On 7 September 2001, Heather Osland’s five-year battle against a 14-year sentence for killing her violent husband came to an abrupt halt. After the High Court upheld her conviction in 1998, Osland tried her last legal channel: a Petition of Mercy to the Victorian government. The panel of Queens Councils decided to stick to the letter of the law and turned her down.
The Release Heather Campaign has galvanised support from women and men around the country, including Radical Women. Put yourself in Heather’s shoes, and the misogyny of a legal system that refuses women the right to defend ourselves is obvious. But from the lofty height of the bench, she’s a calculating murderer because she didn’t wait for the next terrorising episode to act. Instead she intelligently planned how she and her son would kill her tormentor while he was asleep. If she’d lashed out during one of the repeated brutal attacks, the law would consider this self-defence. But then Heather would have become yet another domestic murder statistic, let down by the system. Osland’s situation was kill or be killed.
The release of Heather Osland would be a victory for all women. What is stopping it? First, the campaign has been contained within the framework of the courts. When up against unjust law, justice is won by wresting it from the courts — by taking it to the streets and organising in the movements. Second, campaign organisers individualised Osland’s case as a personal — not a political — fight. A case in the New South Wales two decades ago offers a good lesson. The campaign to release Violet Roberts from a similar sentence was public, militant and fought in the name of all sisters. Popular protest freed Roberts from prison, and her case contributed to the reform of NSW’s law on self-defence in domestic violence.
If Heather Osland is to beat her sentence, her campaign must go for broke. This is a political battle to overturn an unfair law and to achieve this, we must challenge — not rely on — a sexist judiciary. Dare to Struggle. Dare to Win!