In Latvia, every third woman convicted of murder has killed her partner, who had been abusing her. Why judges mostly don’t consider a history of violence as a mitigating circumstance?
On that morning, Daria’s partner broke her nose. The woman rushed out of her apartment barefooted and ran until she could no more. As she was sitting down on the street, a passerby called an ambulance and Daria was taken to a hospital.
However, Daria didn’t stay there long; she decided to flee from hospital and go back to the apartment, kind of to pick up her stuff. Her partner was still there, and they both drank some more. “Word after word, and he hit me again. And then it came to what happened,” says the 30-year-old blonde, met in one of Riga’s poorest neighborhoods where she now lives with her three children.
What happened was that Daria stabbed her man with a knife to death.
“I still believe it was self-defence – either he me, or I him. There was no other option. He hit me so hard that I nearly fainted. I knew from the previous times – when he started to beat me and that craziness could be glimpsed in his eyes, then it would go on until I’m half-dead. I had only one way out – you can’t compare the strength of a man and a woman. When I stabbed him the first time, I understood that I needed to stab him more, otherwise he would take the knife from me and cut my throat.”
The court didn’t see Daria’s actions as self-defence as she was intoxicated and stabbed the man not once, but three times, affirming her intention to kill.
Daria’s case is the only precedent within the last five years, which Re:Baltica unearthed, where the appeal court decided to reduce the sentence for a woman convicted of murder because of violence the woman had suffered in the past.
Daria went to the prison with black eyes. Her scars revealed that she had been beaten more than once. At least three witnesses said in the court hearing that they themselves had seen how the man battered Daria. And what’s important – a few months before the murder Daria had gone to the police to report on injuries sustained in a dispute. This case was closed as Daria didn’t show up for the forensic medical examination and didn’t not provide testimony, however, her words at least had a proof – her own initial application.
Rasma* wasn’t that lucky.
In her own words, Rasma’s husband was beating her since the first day of their marriage for the next 30 years of their life together. Similarly to Daria’s man who “could become jealous even of a pole”, Rasma, too, could never please her husband. If she was going to visit her parents – “so [she was going] whoring”. If she looked at somebody not in the right way, smiled or met her friends, she would receive a blow to her face.
“I always had black eyes. Where could I go when I was beaten blueish black? When I was pregnant and went to doctors, they asked – where did you get those black eyes? It was easier for me to lie. I was working with animals, so I would say that a bull had hit me with a horn,” says Rasma, when I met her at the women prison in Iļģuciems, a suburb of Riga. A simple, middle-aged farmer-woman, whose greyish hair was tied in a ponytail. One can glimpse a hole because of a broken incisor tooth in her smile.
“Everybody around knew. I went to the social service worker of the parish saying that I wanted to leave with the children and asking for an apartment somewhere. They replied – that is your family case, deal with it on your own. I went looking for help twice and both times they replied the same. I decided not to beg anyone for anything,” says the woman.
Once, she was ready to divorce. She had found a boyfriend and had fled to Valmiera, a city in Latvia’s North East, found a job there and rented an apartment.
Her husband managed to find her after all. He had begged her forgiveness kneeling and had promised never to lay his hand upon her. She had a soft heart, believed him and went back to the countryside. For a half a year everything was calm, but then the beatings started again. “I hoped that he would become calmer as he grew older, but it wasn’t the case. The farther it got, the beatings got harder,” says Rasma. Her marriage ended when she killed her husband with an angle grinder after he had threatened to kill their youngest – the sixth child who had developmental disability.
“First I’ll stab that cripple, then you and then I’ll hang myself,” Rasma’s husband had threatened her that night. He grabbed the knife, but Rasma managed to kick it out of his hand and went to their son. Husband hit her from behind, she grabbed the grinder lying on the floor and struck him with it killing the man.
When we meet at the prison, Rasma doesn’t tell that she also had strangled her husband; that she hid his body and lied to other people saying she did not know where he had gone. His corpse was found after two years. I learn about it just later, reading the anonymized judgement, therefore I can’t ask her about it anymore.
Rasma was convicted to five years and a month in prison for the murder, and another two months because she had used her husband’s banking card buying some cheap things at the local shop worth nine euros after his death. There were several circumstances which played against Rasma – the existence of a boyfriend, inability to recall the details of the latest beating. Also, concealing the body and lying. And the fact that she started to testify about her husbands’ violence in details only during the court hearings.
Rasma hadn’t called the police out of fear that it would only make things worse. However, there was one proof of a violence in her case – after one of the beatings the hospital had reported on injuries sustained by the woman to the police. As Rasma didn’t show up to give a testimony, the police closed the case. (Rasma claims that her husband had hid the summons from the police and she hadn’t known about it.) The prosecutor Santa Veide explains that this incident hadn’t been considered in the case because it did not directly relate to the day of the murder. Therefore, the court did not warrant the previous violence, which Rasma had experienced, as a mitigating circumstance. The court interpreted the events of the fateful night as a routine household dispute which turned into a fight, not as the last act in a series of systemic violence.
A Third – Murderers of Violent Husbands
There were two events which lead us to investigate Latvian courts’ case law in cases where women were convicted of murder.
One was a research done by our colleagues. Russian journalists had analysed more than 500 judgements and concluded that, contrary to the statements of those in power, domestic violence was an enormous problem; and in most cases, courts sided with the abusers. In 91% of cases women convicted of murder had defended themselves from violence, but courts believed that “the accused should act in a socially acceptable way”. “The socially acceptable way for our courts means fleeing, hiding with neighbours. To take a weapon in one’s hands and repel the attacks – that is not socially acceptable,” the newspaper Novaja Gazeta, which investigated the topic, quoted a lawyer Jelena Solvyova.
In Latvia, the number of convictions for murder done by women is substantially smaller – 38 in total within the past five years, shows the information from the Court Administration. Re:Baltica analysed all judgements of the courts and concluded that 12 women of 38 convicted for murder had killed their partners. In all cases women had suffered violence from their partners, either on the day of the murder or before. There is another thing which is common in all these cases – use of alcohol. And for all women but one the murder weapon was knife – the only weapon available to women.
Similar Cases, Various Judgements
Although circumstances are similar for many cases, the judgments of the courts vary widely. The line which distinguishes a murder from a killing when more than reasonable force might have been used defending oneself is a blurred one. In neither case has the court considered it possible to reclassify the accusations to softer charges or acquit the woman by recognising murder as self-defence.
Only in three of eight convictions for murder particularly the court did acknowledge the murdered partner’s violence as a mitigating circumstance.
In one case an intoxicated woman had a conflict with her companion. He had started pushing her and hit her in the face, defending herself the woman had stabbed him. She was sentenced to five years in prison – the court considered her candid confession, pregnancy and the fact that “[she] had committed the crime because of the victim’s unlawful behaviour”.
The second verdict details a relationship full of sexual humiliation. The couple had met through a dating advertisement and had gone on a few dates. The verdict reads almost as a script for a horror movie. “The person under heavy influence of alcohol required sexual relationship in various perverted forms, which she refused. After that he threatened her and demonstrated various objects, which he promised to use to do her bodily harm and to kill, [he] hauled her by her hair through the apartment naked, burned her hand with a lighted cigarette,” reads the judgement of the court. After the perpetrator tried to set the woman’s hair on fire by a gas stove, she grabbed a knife from a bread box and stabbed him.
The woman ran out of the apartment desperate and naked, which was confirmed by boys she met on the apartment building’s staircase. She was sentenced to two years conditionally. She was saved from a heavier sentence by the examination which said that she had been in a state of mental agitation and “the case has been proven that the actions of the accused were caused by the victim’s violence and severe indignities”.
The third case is that of Daria. However, the court considered violence as a circumstance only during the appeal. “The court analysed all circumstances, including motives, more thoroughly and reached a perfectly reasoned conclusion,” says Zinaida Pavlova, the prosecutor of the case. “The information about the violence was also available to the court in the first instance, but it [the court] focused more on the qualification of the offense, not the circumstances.”
The prosecutor says – although her duty is to sustain the charge, a fair settlement is essential. “The law requires all mitigating circumstances to be taken into account. In this case, medical assistance had to be provided to her [Daria] in the morning, there was evidence for an earlier episode – this needs to be assessed in conjunction with the outcome,” says the prosecutor.
The judge Brigita Būmeistere admits that the morning call was a proof that there was a ground for Daria’s defence position. “The main thing is to report [about violence]. Otherwise, nothing can be proved.”
The court reduced Daria’s sentence by six months, and she ended up spending in the prison five years and a half.
The Questionable Proportionality
The other reason why we started analysing judgements of the courts was a speech by Rudīte Losāne, a long-time chaplain at Ilģuciems women’s prison, delivered at the ceremony announcing the European Person of the Year in Latvia in December of 2019. The chaplain criticized the church and part of the society who opposed the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating domestic violence without having even read it, because the domestic violence levels against women in Latvia was frightening.
The chaplain observed that many of the women serving prison sentences for murder had killed their violent partners in defence. “
A woman after 15 years of cohabitation was defending herself against the attacks of her violent husband, and had stabbed a potato knife in the man’s groin injuring him so severely that he died. When I talked with this woman, she took off her shirt and showed me her scars – beaten, stabbed, and even burned, which her violent partner had left over the years of their life together,” the chaplain said. “Another woman, who has spent several years in prison because her husband sexually abused their minor children and forced the woman to be silent, thus making her a co-conspirator of his crimes, still can’t recover from psychological trauma resulting from violence. Another woman, defending her disabled son from father’s violence, beat her husband while in an affective state. The result is a sentence of imprisonment.”
Rasma didn’t take off her shirt in the court, but she too could demonstrate scars from a stab in her hand and on her head after her husband’s attempt to tear of her ear. Several women the chaplain mentioned can be found in the criminal cases in which previous violence was not considered as a circumstance of the crime. The judgements don’t make it clear when domestic violence is a factor to be considered.
For example, in one case there had been drinking at home. The woman’s disabled partner fell asleep, she was peeling potatoes and picked up a fight with her companion’s friend, who had been drinking with them. The man started to pull her by her hair on the floor, strangled her and teared her dress, making the woman fearful that the man might try to rape her. The woman herself said she couldn’t recall whether she had a knife in her hand or her companion, who had woken up during the fight, pushed it to her. The woman alleges that the violent man had fallen on the knife. She didn’t want to kill him.
However, the court concluded that the tool – a kitchen knife – chosen by the woman to protect herself and stabbing it in the attacker’s chest “was obviously not reasonable [use of force] between defence and attack”. It also rebuffs the fall on the knife as a “peculiar defence position”.
What would have been considered a reasonable response? Fleeing from home until the next time – on the condition that the woman would be able to escape alive? A blow with a chair, not with a knife?
In another judgement the testimonies about past violence endured by the accused woman from her relatives and friends had been deemed not valid because it was in their interests that the woman would be acquitted. The woman had met a man, she had hoped for a stable relationship, but drinking had begun and increased, and soon enough her partner turned violent. The man infected her with HIV. The woman did not complain to anybody, even her son, about her partner’s beatings out of shame. Just once had she called the police, who required the man to leave her house. They broke up, but the man still visited the woman from time to time. On the fateful day the man waited for the woman at the apartment building’s gateway. He wanted to have a drink together. They went to her apartment. After some time, she started begging him to leave, but he didn’t, he started to insult her and pushed her around. The woman escaped to the staircase hall. When she returned to the apartment, she found the man sitting on her bed dressed in just underpants and reaching for the bottle next to which a knife was lying. She grabbed the knife out of fear that the man would take it, and stabbed him. She was trained as medical staff, tried to save him and called the ambulance.
Three witnesses of past violence – two friends and her son – were not found credible because they were claimed to be interested in a favourable outcome. The court acknowledged that there had been episodes of violence in the past, but did not consider it as a mitigating circumstance. The woman was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.
In Rasma’s case all the above-mentioned circumstances could be observed – although she didn’t drink, her husband did and he beat her. Children saw it and few of them testified, but their testimonies were not found credible because of their self-interest. There were no witnesses that she killed her husband defending her son.
“What do you understand with past violence – if she has had a beating in the morning, does that give her a right to murder in the evening?” the judge Kārlis Jansons, who headed the court hearing in the first instance, started his conversation with Re:Baltica. “It is incredibly hard to figure out what happened on that day because there are no witnesses. I would like to point out that my judgment was upheld at the court of appeal. In addition, I gave her the smallest possible sentence – maybe it is not obvious from the judgement, but because she had a difficult life.”
The Circle of Violence
Around 200 women are serving their sentence in Iļģuciems prison; of those one in ten have been convicted of murder. “Most women who turn up here have suffered from one or other violence,” says Agita Mediņa, the head of Resocialization department at Iļģuciems prison. “Not all of them consider it [violence] as something special. In families, where it has been present, violence is simply a part of life.”
There are many similarities in the life stories of prison inmates – alcoholism in the family, running away from home to avoid scandals and fights during their teenage years, getting entangled with the wrong company. The situation is not the worst in Riga, but deep in countryside, where everyone knows everybody, and women don’t have a place to go. “They have a dead end. Victims of violence who don’t have support from their own families and external support systems to which to turn for help. The abuser is everything she has.”
During Daria’s childhood, she lived to see how her father was beating up her mother and tried to sexually harass his own daughter. “The psychologist in the prison said – you killed not that man who was beating you, but unconsciously you killed your father. You lived your whole life with this hatred, you grew with it, it would have happened sooner or later,” says Daria.
Her parents divorced eventually, but after her experience Daria swore to herself that she would never allow anybody to lay a hand on her. She is not a victim, rather a feisty fighter without a solid family background. And as she gets drunk, shit hits the fan. That’s how she killed her ex-man, that’s how the family court nearly took her children away from after her fight with the current partner. “I can’t drink. I have to raise three wonderful children. I will not let anybody hurt them or me either,” says Daria. “It is hard to leave, but it is hard to be together with that man too. You torture yourself and all the relatives. When children see that their mother is being beaten, when a six-year old child takes a wooden stick and tries to hit [the perpetrator] on the head… It doesn’t work. It stays, psychologically.”
Rasma’s husband was drinking himself and was beating his parents. When I ask her why she didn’t leave, Rasma replies that she loved him. He was her first man and she couldn’t imagine her life with another. She starts to cry when I ask her why she has agreed to tell her story now. “So that other women would go away and would not wait for a change. So that they would fight till the end. So that they wouldn’t have what I do.” Trying to end the conversation on a lighter note I ask Rasma what she will do when her sentence is finished. “I have a new happy life. I managed to marry while in prison. And marry happily.”
*The name of the convicted woman has been changed at her request.
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Author: Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica
Editor: Nellija Ločmele, IR
Translated into Russian by TVNET
Translated into English by Aija Krūtaine
Illustration by Vita Radziņa
Technical support by Madara Eihe
Additional reporting by Sabīne Bērziņa and Zanda Ozola – Balode, LTV