In September 1996, Heather Osland was convicted of the murder of her second husband and sentenced to 14 years in prison. She was tried with her son, David. Although he had dealt the fatal blow, the jury couldn’t agree on a verdict for him. At a subsequent trial, he was acquitted.
The story of what Heather suffered at her husband’s hands, which led her to this act, is horrible and bizarre. It is also a grotesque extension of the violence women experience daily. Our minds and bodies are subjected to the arbitrary and often ruthless whims of men who hold power over us — our husbands, fathers, bosses, co-workers, police and government officials.
The controlled homelife. Heather and her children from her previous marriage were not allowed to eat until he sat down at the table, often hours after the meal had been served. The penalty for disobedience? A fork jabbed through the hand. Frank demanded that anyone wanting to shower turn on a light or go from one room to another to get his permission first.
There is a photo of a seemingly loving Frank sitting in his armchair with Heather leaning against his knees. Loving — until you realise that this was one of Frank’s favourite control games. Heather had to sit there, unmoving, until Frank allowed her to move.
She could not go out, nor could she have friends visit. Isolating their partners from others is a characteristic of abusive men. Heather even lost her job. Her employer could not tolerate Frank’s disruptive behaviour at her workplace. Exercising his power, her boss used sick leave that Heather had taken (the result of a breakdown caused by stress) as an excuse to sack her.
Rule by terror. Heather, her children and the children’s pets were subjects of his sadistic displays of power. He raped Heather and bashed her. He shot the dog in front of the two younger children, starved the love birds and repeatedly threatened Heather and her children with death.
On the night of the killing, Heather and David were certain Frank was about to murder her — his assault on this occasion was so manic. She laced his dinner with tranquillisers to calm him down. But they then realised that once he woke up, he’d realise what she had done.
They decided they had to kill him. Heather explained: “There was no way out of this life with Frank. There is no doubt I would be dead by now because of the continual violence.”
People ask why she didn’t leave. She did, many times. But Frank threatened to kill her and the children if she did not return. Heather knew that the police would not protect them. Says Heather, “they always left me to the mercy of Frank.”
Upholding male supremacy. The laws of self-defence have been framed with men in mind. You must prove that you believed you were in immediate danger of death and took action at that moment to defend yourself. The model is that of a “reasonable man” attacked in a bar room brawl, who fends off his attacker — not a woman imprisoned in the home and subjected to years of abuse by her partner.
Heather and David killed Frank when he was asleep, not when he was throwing Heather around the room. The alternative was for Heather to be killed herself.
Similarly, evidence of provocation is not admissible if it goes back long before the events leading up to the killing. That Heather had reported Frank’s violence to her doctor and her neighbours, was not allowed by the court.
The reasonable man vs the irrational woman. The Battered Woman Syndrome is the common defence in these cases — based on the concept that the woman is not rational when she takes action. It assumes that abuse reduces women to a “learned helplessness.” In this state, they are not responsible for what they do. On the contrary! A woman killing a violent partner is rationally responding to a real and present danger.
Heather had another disadvantage in the courtroom. She doesn’t fit the “helpless woman” image. So she had to be the other female stereotype, the witch.
Provoked to kill — the sexist double standard. Why does the court rate husbands’ lives so high and wives’ lives so low? Look at these two cases, both in 1994.
At the trial of Marion Taylor, who killed her violent husband, the judge said: “Even in cases of acute domestic violence, the community cannot condone the extreme measure of the killing of the aggressor party… It cannot be accepted that the victim may take the law into her own hands to the extent of extinguishing the life of another.”
Paul Alexander shot dead his sleeping wife. She had called him gutless. He was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and sentenced to only 30 months in jail. In this case, the judge reasoned, his wife’s conduct had stretched him beyond his endurance. In this case, obviously, “extinguishing the life of another” was much less serious.
The judges’ concern for the sanctity of human life, when it’s a case of a wife killing an abusive husband, says a lot about their view of marriage, and a need for the strongest possible sanctions to keep women in it.
Since those days when Heather was desperately seeking protection from Frank, the women’s movement has forced the legal system to take domestic violence more seriously. Even so, it is still treated as less serious than violence outside the home.
Marriage is a primary institution of male supremacy, and the husband’s “right” to discipline his wife is still implicitly supported. Economics and the judiciary often force women to return to a deadly situation. For Heather, on one side of the coin is the police failure to protect her from her husband’s violence or to safeguard her right to leave him. On the other is the court’s failure to recognise the causes of her action in killing her husband. Both ways, she loses.
The brutality of Heather’s sentence, like the brutality of her treatment by Frank, is a measure of this society’s need to maintain marriage as a means of subjugating women. If Frank had woken on that fatal morning and killed his wife, what would his sentence have been? What value would some judge have put on Heather’s life?
Feminists organising for women’s self-defence. The Release Heather campaign, spearheaded by feminist lawyers and community activists, has attracted the support of hundreds of women and men across the country. It is running an appeal in the High Court. Release Heather has linked up with a grassroots campaign, Women who Kill in Self-Defence. Both challenge the laws of self-defence as they apply to women who kill their violent partners.
Heather Osland’s release and the re-definition of self-defence, so that it protects women from violent men, are critical campaigns that must be supported and built. But the struggle doesn’t stop there. Heather’s victimisation is the logical outcome of a capitalist system that operates on male supremacy, as surely as the internal combustion engine operates on petrol.
We have to demand full police and legal protection for victims of domestic violence. State-funded women’s refuges must be restored and expanded. Job training and placement for battered women must be provided.
Ultimately, we need to change the society that makes the law. A socialist feminist replacement will get us there.
Thanks to Maggie Troupe from the Women’s Legal Service for providing information about the Heather Osland case and the campaigns.