In the report Spouse Murder Defendants in Large Urban Counties (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995), researchers Patrick A. Langan and John W. Dawson reported on their examination and analysis of 540 spouse homicide cases in the nation's seventy-five largest counties—59% of the killers were husbands and 41% were wives. Even though Langan and Dawson analyzed data from crimes and court decisions that took place more than a decade ago, they explained that "[The Bureau of Justice Statistics] knows from long experience with surveying courts that changes in case processing are quite gradual. The report's results are, therefore, likely to be applicable today."
Nearly all the wives used weapons—95% of female suspects used a gun or knife. Men used those weapons only 69% of the time. Not surprisingly, in view of their generally larger size, strength, and body weight, husbands are far more likely than wives to strangle or beat their spouses to death.
Langan and Dawson also found that, proportionally, twice as many husbands (20%) killed in fits of jealousy. In addition, husbands who killed their wives were more likely to be substance abusers than wives who killed their husbands. Nearly one-third (31%) of the husbands had a history of drug abuse, compared to 9% of the wives. Almost one-quarter (22%) of the husbands were using drugs at the time of the crime, and two-thirds, or 66%, were drinking alcohol, compared to 3% and 37%, respectively, for the women. Another later study funded by the National Institute of Justice confirmed the high likelihood that when husbands murder or attempt to murder their wives, they are also abusing alcohol and drugs. Phyllis Sharps, Jacquelyn C. Campbell, Doris Campbell, Faye Gary, and Daniel Webster reported their findings in "Risky Mix: Drinking, Drug Use, and Homicide" (National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 250, November 2003).
Wives on Trial
Although women in Langan and Dawson's study were about as likely as men to be prosecuted, stand trial, or plead guilty to killing their spouses, female defendants were less likely to serve jail time. In part, this finding resulted from a larger percentage of husbands being convicted (41%) than wives (31%). Researchers found women were seven times more likely than men to be acquitted at trial.
Female defendants were also less likely to serve life sentences for killing their spouses than were male defendants. Convicted men were sentenced to prison terms more than twice as long as those received by convicted women. About half as many wives as husbands received life sentences (8% compared to 15%). Among wives sentenced to prison, only 15% received a sentence of twenty
years or more, compared to 43% of the husbands. Wives in general received considerably shorter prison sentences than husbands, six years versus 16.5 years.
In 44% of wife defendant cases, there was evidence that the wife had acted in response to a violent attack from her husband at the time of the killing. In contrast, just 10% of the husbands claimed that their victims had assaulted them at the time of the murder. The researchers observed that "[i]n many instances in which wives were charged with killing their husbands, the husbands had assaulted the wife, and the wife then killed in self-defense. That might explain why wives had a lower conviction rate than did husbands." With strong legal defense and detailed documentation of abuse, many women are able to successfully argue that after suffering years of mental and/or physical abuse at the hands of their abusers, they suffer from what is known as battered woman syndrome and killed in self-defense. In fact, battered woman syndrome has become a recognized defense in courtrooms throughout the country. At least some scholars, however, advocate relying on evidence of "battering and its effects" rather than testimony of a "syndrome" that reduces the issues facing battered women to a psychological problem and does not fit every victim's circumstances. Kathleen J. Ferraro explores the issue in her study, "The Words Change, But the Melody Lingers: The Persistence of the Battered Woman Syndrome in Criminal Cases Involving Battered Women" (Violence against Women, vol. 9, no. 1, January 2003).