Women who killed for their lives

An investigation into the Romanian state’s failure to prevent spousal murders

Andra Mureșan – HotNews.ro, 23 June 2023

HotNews.ro spoke to women convicted of killing their partners, lawyers, judges, police, psychologists and experts and analysed court decisions to try to find out whether marital murders committed by women could have been prevented by Romanian state policies.

Author’s note: Women’s names have been changed to protect their identity. Mihaela is currently in pre-trial detention. She was interviewed in Cluj-Napoca prison, Gherla Penitentiary’s External Section. The rest of the cases in the article are reconstructed from sentencing decisions found on the portal of the Superior Council of Magistrates or requested from the courts on the basis of media cases.

Cross-border Talks’ note: This article was republished in agreement with the author and the consent of Hotnews.ro. 

Warning! The article contains detailed descriptions of scenes of abuse, domestic violence and murder.

A woman with blonde hair in a braided ponytail, sky-coloured eyes and a red and black striped blouse limps up the stairs of the outer section of Gherla Prison in Cluj-Napoca. Behind her is a guard, watching her every move. Further to the right, a female colleague is waiting to go for a walk. She is wearing a blue dress with large fuchsia flowers and a pink lipstick on her lips that you can see from a distance.

Mihaela* is 46 years. 6 months have passed since she was remanded in custody for killing her partner. After years of enduring his beatings and jealousy, one autumn evening she lashed out and hit him in the shoulder with a kitchen knife. Prosecutors say there were two blows, she only remembers one.

Her tiny footsteps break the rays of light that gently enter through the bars and orange stained glass windows. The half-open ward of the penitentiary is drenched in the smell of chlorine and chamomile, making it strikingly similar to a hospital room.

That evening’s argument started for no clear reason, as it often does. Liviu began to be violent and swear at her. “You crippled handi*apathe,” he always called her, because he knew she was insecure. After she slapped him twice, Mihaela only remembers turning around to get the knife from the cupboard behind her.

“Guilty as I am, but at least I’m hoping for a lighter sentence…,” the woman says. “Fifteen years in prison at home, now I’m here.”

Before Liviu she was married once. From those two relationships, she is survived by her three children: the eldest son, 22, the daughter, 19, and the youngest, 13. In both she was abused. She remembers her mother-in-law putting a pillow over her face while her husband beat her so she wouldn’t get bruises. That way, people didn’t ask questions at work. At that time, she was the only one bringing money into the house, so she couldn’t afford to take days off. She worked in a factory in a village near Baia Mare.

Her husband even beat his parents and suspected Mihaela of having an affair with his father.

After ten years of jealousy and beatings, she decided to leave. The husband died soon after, and Mihaela continued her life, although she was torn apart. She loved him in spite of everything. That’s how she met Liviu, who was her co-worker.

Illustration by Roma Gavrilă

“As they say… I got rid of the devil and I found my mother,” the woman continues.

And there are many more like her. We often hear about men who kill their wives or concubines, but much less often about women who resort to this act because they feel they have no alternative.

Research carried out by Raluca Pavel, PhD in sociology, in 2013 shows that out of 72 women imprisoned in Târgșor prison for aggravated murder, domestic violence was involved in 40 cases. Out of all of them, 25 women who killed their partners agreed to talk to the researcher.

Further, Pavel points out that “women are more likely to commit crimes against their partners when they are victims of domestic violence, when they are constrained by traditional expectations, or when they deny themselves adequate means of escape from a life of abuse and end up in situations of despair and hopelessness.”

From 2014 to 2022, 715 criminal acts of homicide, committed between partners, have been registered and 48,059 protection orders have been issued, according to data received from the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The statistics are not disaggregated by gender or history of domestic violence or abuse, according to the institution.

Homicide statistics 2020 – 2022 collected by the Public Ministry. In 2022, 86 of the cases involved domestic violence. That’s 4.44% of the cases to be solved.

The situation is the same when we talk about the number of women in prison. Data is lacking and it is difficult to identify how many of the women imprisoned for murder are also victims of domestic violence.

The National Administration of Prisons (ANP) has told us that, at the moment, 17 women are imprisoned in prisons in the country for the murder of a family member. In order to know the exact situation of each of them, prison employees have to leaf through the files, because there is no clear record of the prisoners.

Other countries have been analysing the phenomenon of women in this situation since the 1990s. Countries such as Canada, Australia, Spain and Japan are trying to fight for reform of the justice system, from which victims stand to lose. At the same time, in Romania the phenomenon seems to be ignored by the authorities because “there are not enough cases, there are only a few isolated ones”, as one policeman contacted for this article told us.

Sensationalist headlines in the local press contradict his claim, as does the jurisprudence portal of the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM). Year after year we hear of cases where women kill their partners with the mug on the bedside table, the knife in the kitchen or the hair in the yard.

This article looks at how these women are dealt with by the courts in Romania, how well the authorities are doing at preventing domestic crime and what we can learn from other countries that are trying to reduce the scale of the problem.

We spoke to women prisoners, lawyers, judges, police officers, forensic psychologists or sociologists, representatives of the ANP and we requested information from the Public Ministry and the General Inspectorate of Police (IGPR), in order to answer all these questions.

On top of that, we have analysed seven judgments from 2020-2022 in which similar cases are presented, in order to be able to see whether or not years of abuse are taken into account in the individualisation of the sentence and how severely these women are punished by the state which would otherwise have buried them.

“It was the third call from Mirela’s house in the last ten hours. Her husband died on the way to the hospital.”

One autumn morning in 2021, in a small town in Alba, Mirela picked up the phone and called the police. It wasn’t the first time she had argued with George, but this time something had changed.

They had been together for two years, and soon after their two children, twins, came along. Around that time, their relationship began to deteriorate. George was jealous, and because of this he beat her and threatened her frequently. After these incidents, Mirela forbade him to go near her house, except when she came to pick up the children.

They found themselves in the same situation the day before she called the police. George came to pick up one of the twins. The baby was in her sister-in-law’s care, so she let him go with his father. Mirela had gone to buy something to eat at the shop, and on the way here she met the two.

It wasn’t long before her ex-partner started insulting and swearing at her. He even punched her lightly in the shin area. Out of fear, she chose to walk back with him to the house. Shortly afterwards they parted ways and it was left that she had to come back with the child in a few hours.

Evening came and George kept his promise. He left the baby at home, but half an hour later he showed up again on the grounds that he wanted to take a walk with him. He was drunk, as he often was.

In addition to his problems with Mirela, George also had a drinking problem.

Raluca Pavel’s research shows that alcohol was often the catalyst for conflict in some of the family murders.

However, Mirela turned a blind eye and said she would let him take the child back, but on condition that he was brought back because he had a cold and needed medication. After a short time, he returned only to let her know that the boy would stay with him.

They started arguing, at which point Mirela’s brother intervened and asked him to bring the child back. Angry, George called the police to complain that Mirela’s brother “wouldn’t leave him alone”, according to the prosecutors’ indictment.

The police came to the scene, identified his brother, found nothing suspicious and left the scene.

At midnight comes the second call from Mirela’s house. This time it was her on the other end, scared because George was threatening her with a knife. He begged her, through the rolled-down window, to open the door.

The cops came again, calmed him down, then left Mirela alone. The woman closed all the windows, including the kitchen window she had left open before, and went to bed hoping her ex-partner would never show up.

Four hours later, she sees George in the house. He managed to get in through the bathroom window, which Mirela had forgotten about. He started slapping her across the face with his palm and told her “don’t scream”.

The twins also appeared in the room, because they were hungry and they heard noise. Mirela started breastfeeding them, during which time George took her phone and put it in his pocket. This was to make sure she didn’t call the police. She lay in bed and fell asleep for a few hours, a little past sunrise.

When he woke up, he got up and urinated next to the children’s anteroom, which caused Mirela to burst into flames. That’s when they started fighting. He slapped her twice with his palm over her nose and face, then went back to sleep.

She let him fall asleep, then picked up a glass and hit him over the head with it. She then took a trinket, in the shape of a dove on a rock, from the room and continued hitting him. Then he went into the garage and got a pear big enough to knock him down from there. He did this three times, according to the indictment. Then four times. When he started bleeding, he took their daughter to a neighbor, whom he asked to call the police.

Illustration by Roma Gavrilă

It was the third call to the police from Mirela’s house in the last ten hours. George died on the way to hospital. Mirela now faces four years and six months in prison, according to the sentencing decision. The woman has appealed the judges’ decision and the case has now reached the Alba Iulia Court of Appeal. Her case is one of those in which the court took into account her history of domestic violence.

It was not the first case of this kind the police have come into contact with. The same happened to Mihaela, whose partner was stuck with fines she was also paying.

One evening, on his way to work, he followed her because he suspected her of cheating on him. He brought her back home and wouldn’t let her go to work. When they went into the yard, he slapped her. Her mother-in-law called the police, who came quickly. Mihaela showed them the bruises and explained what he had done.

They took them to the station where they gave a statement and he got a fine. Then they took them both home as if nothing had happened. All this happened before 2018, the year the interim protection order was put in place.

“Why are you bringing him to my house? Why don’t you leave him in his village?”, Mihaela remembers thinking back then. “But I didn’t say anything.”

There were two policemen: a woman and a man. The man asked her boyfriend “Why are you arguing with the lady?” to which he replied “I’m jealous”. The policeman started joking with him and told him that he also happens to be jealous of an actor in soap operas his wife watches. And Mihaela was again discouraged.

In five out of seven cases analysed on the Jurisprudence Portal where women killed their partners, they called the police before doing the murder. Some of them did this several times, but to no avail.

Indeed, attempts were made to take action following these murders. At the moment, there is also a pilot project running in Bucharest, Iași, Mureș and Vrancea to monitor offenders via surveillance bracelets. The aim is to have the system in place throughout the country by 2025.

The number of protection orders has also increased in recent years. In 2022, there was a 17% increase in provisional protection orders issued by police officers, according to data collected by the Anais Association and presented in a report by the FILIA Centre.

Lawyers’ practice backs up these figures: “In the last year we had about 20-30 protection orders,” explains Georgiana Rădulescu, a lawyer specialising in family law. Victims can apply for a temporary protection order or a court order, but they often don’t know this information.

“I have eight classes, not more. I’m not a stupid woman, but I’m not smart enough to know how to do these procedures,” explains Mihaela why she has never sought help from a domestic violence centre or a protection order. The police never told her she had any tools at her disposal.

Trust in local, county or central authorities is extremely low when it comes to rural women. The same is true for most of the women in the article. The vast majority of women are also unaware of their rights.

This is what the latest report by the FILIA Centre on women’s access to safety and health services shows. The report shows the results of the ACCESS: Advocacy, Empowerment, Strengthening and Equality in Health and Safety project, which was carried out over two years and gathered over 500 women.

“Women develop their own coping mechanisms in abusive relationships and stop turning to authorities, often as a result of past experiences of inadequate intervention by authorities,” the report says. Support needs to come both from the authorities and from those around them.

“But why did you provoke it?”

Many victims of domestic violence suffer from battered women’s syndrome, which refers to a particular type of violence and the abuse to which the victim has been subjected.

“For example, experts in the field of domestic violence have concluded that repeated exposure to psychological, sexual or emotional violence produces certain behaviours and thoughts that contribute to the victim’s inability to leave the abuser,” explains Raluca Pavel in her research entitled “Mariticide and Stockholm Syndrome. The Profile of the Woman Closed For Mariticide”.

Most women in Romania stay in abusive relationships to keep the family together or for religious reasons, Pavel further explains.

“You have to go this way because God doesn’t give you more than you can bear,” Pavel told us women were told. “Even if they asked for help, friends or family would not have a positive answer for them or they would be confronted with questions like ‘But why did you challenge him?'”

Added to all this is financial dependence on the husband. The Gender Violence Barometer, conducted by the FILIA Centre in 2022, shows that 1 in 4 respondents find it acceptable that a man does not let his partner use his income as she wishes.

In the absence of real support, these women feel they have only one option at hand. Their situation does not get any rosier once they go to court. Even though in countries like Canada and the US there have been cases where these women have been able to benefit from self-defence, the rules for this justification are quite strict in our country.

If the attack is not immediate or imminent, you cannot claim self-defence.

“If the assailant is an abused victim, they may or may not be criminally liable, depending on the case. If the abuse took place in the same circumstances as the victim’s defensive action then the victim may be absolved of criminal liability in certain circumstances set out in the criminal code.

There are justifying or imputability causes, such as, for example, self-defence, which is a justifying cause, or a situation of non-culpable excess”, explains Mihai Ștefan Ghica, judge at the criminal section of the Cluj-Napoca Court.

Self-defence must meet several conditions to be taken into account. We’re talking about both attack and defence.

So, according to the Penal Code, “self-defence means the person who commits the act in order to remove a material, direct, immediate and unjust attack, which endangers his person, the person of another, their rights or a general interest, if the defence is proportionate to the seriousness of the attack”, which makes the legal system quite rigid in the face of cases of women, victims of domestic violence.

This is one of the problems that arise in many jurisdictions when we talk about these cases. Many women who kill in response to their husband’s threats, which occur on the same day, end up behind bars because “the attack was not immediate”.

It is even more difficult when these women kill in their sleep, which is an aggravating circumstance and can get them extra years on their sentence. So is the bond between her and her partner. Acts committed against a family member lead to an increase of the sentence limits by one quarter.

Battered women’s syndrome goes through several phases: the accumulated tension phase, the acute abuse phase and the calm or reconciliation phase. Women often end up killing in a final phase. They are likely to have endured far more serious acts of violence than they did when they decided to take their partner’s life.

“So it’s the 114th time they’ve been beaten, threatened with death, thrown at with knives and so on. and they fight back in their defence. And sometimes the defence results in the death of the other person, because very often it happens against a background of alcohol consumption and if the aggressor is drunk enough, there are situations in which when she fought back she had nothing to do”, explains Gabriela Groza, a forensic psychologist in Cluj-Napoca.

Criminal law in Romania does not recognise the battered woman syndrome, but women can benefit from the so-called “state of disorder”, which can reduce the penalty. The court may also establish certain judicial mitigating circumstances.

“A victim of domestic violence who can no longer cope with that state of tension reacts violently, but late, i.e. not at the time when the abuse took place. In this case, the judge can assess, based on all the concrete data, whether the perpetrator, the victim of violence, also reacted in relation to those behaviours”, Mihai Ghica continues.

The judge says that the courts can take into account the history of domestic violence, the times when the woman has called the police or any other circumstances they consider relevant to show that there was also a history of abuse.

Domestic violence is alleged, but sometimes not taken into account in sentencing

Not all courts do this, however. In the case of Oana, who killed her husband after an argument, the judge did not take into account a history of domestic violence. She had called the police four months before the murder, a month before, and only then came the final appeal.

“The police workers who went to the home of the two persons found only that they were in an advanced state of intoxication and there were no indications/traces of the commission of any assault,” according to the indictment drawn up by prosecutors.

Although it was stated several times that there were often “contradictory discussions” or “arguments” between the two, the court did not take this into account. The woman was sentenced to 10 years in prison at first instance, with a right of appeal.

The judge justified this on the grounds that “the woman acted with intent” and because she had no concrete memory of what she had done and was confusing the facts. She threw her husband’s jacket in the hallway, wiped the knife of blood, did not call the police herself, and the axe was not in the place she originally indicated, which suggested she was trying to hide the evidence, in the court’s view.

It often happens that people who commit a spontaneous murder call 112 right then and there and report it, but not everyone does this, explains psychologist Gabriela Groza.

“Some immediately look for a solution, they do something, others freeze, they remain frozen. And the fact that you don’t say immediately or don’t have an immediate reaction does not lead to the conclusion, under any circumstances, that it was premeditated. Including from a legal point of view, there should be other elements that lead to the conclusion of premeditation. And it is not enough that a person reacted, because reactions are not so specific,” Groza continues.

On top of that, when it comes to battered women’s syndrome, research shows that many women can experience memory loss. This can be an impediment for lawyers who want to build their defense. That’s why it’s important to get psychological counselling during the trial, but that only happens if defendants ask for it.

“It’s very difficult for the human mind to play a dual role at the same time: that of victim and defendant. That’s why, once they are the defendant in a trial, less protective measures are taken against the person,” she adds.

A similar case was also encountered by Bucharest-based lawyer Georgiana Rădulescu. A woman who had been abused for years by her husband ended up killing him one day. She was given 18 years in the first instance, justifying it as premeditated murder. That was almost ten years ago.

It was a woman married at 17 to her older husband, who was beating her. They lived together with their 13-year-old child and her paralyzed mother, whom she was caring for.

“In one episode when he came in drunk, he started beating her as he usually did. She kept making food,” the lawyer continued. “Afterwards, he also picked on the child, that he spilled in the bowl of flour in which he was making the dumplings. When she saw that he was also beating the child, she couldn’t resist. She took the knife she used to peel the potatoes and cut the veins on the left side of his neck and he died.”

The court found that the woman had acted with premeditation, because she knew that “there are important veins there”. She had four grades.

Lawyer Georgiana Rădulescu subsequently represented her at the High Court, where she was joined by a panel of three judges who reduced her sentence to ten years.

But lawyers in other countries still think that would be too long a sentence. Elizabeth A. Sheehy is one of them. A professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and author of “Defending Battered Women: Lessons from the Transcripts,” Elizabeth has analyzed 91 cases similar to Michael or Mirela’s from 1990 to 2013.

“Advocates working with victims of domestic violence need to be patient to get to the real story”

One case that has set an important precedent in Canada is that of Angelique Lynn Lavallee. It was the first case of its kind in which a woman was acquitted on the basis of self-defence, citing battered woman syndrome. That was in 1990.

Since then, Sheehy says little progress has been made. Even in Canada there are problems when it comes to defending women who kill because of domestic violence. Just like here, many judges will consider it premeditated murder.

However, there is an important difference. The lawyer can call in experts to look at all the facts of the case and talk to the defendant. The expert then draws up a report which can become evidence that can be attached to the case and give evidence. On the basis of this, the defence can be built, which can be called self-defence.

Experts can also be called in to examine the case in our law, but this is not a recurrent practice, according to a judge consulted by the editorial office.

“The lawyer looks at that report and decides if another one is needed. We’ve heard transcripts where the lawyer had multiple experts testify, not just one,” Sheehy explains.

There are cases where even experts can fail. That’s what happened in the case of Helen Nasalund, who received an 18-year prison sentence for killing her husband after he held a gun to her head that very night. The case reviewer concluded that she did not suffer from battered women’s syndrome, although she had endured her husband’s abuse for 30 years and there was evidence of it.

A lawyer took over the case and managed to get her sentence reduced to 9 years on appeal. Meanwhile, more than 29,000 people have signed a petition to try to get her out of jail.

“There’s another problem. If you bring in an expert to talk to a woman very soon after the crime happened, she’s likely to say nothing. She’s likely to deny that she was abused or raped by her husband. It can take her a long time to trust the person in front of her,” Sheehy continues.

That’s why she believes lawyers need to be patient when dealing with these cases. Another problem is that most of them are used to dealing with male defendants, who are very different from female defendants.

“I once spoke to a female lawyer who specialises in criminal law. She told me, ‘When you have male clients, they come in and deny everything. They say it’s the woman’s fault, that they were drunk and she provoked them, etc. When you have a female client (ed: who killed her husband), she admits everything and gives you no reason for it,” the lawyer explains.

What happens to women once they go behind bars?

For all the work lawyers do, cases where the case is justified are few. So women will end up spending years behind bars. Judge Mihai Ghica believes the system should insist on psychological counselling and reintegration into society.

“There is a need for a framework of psychological assistance during the trial, which the person should be able to follow. Even in cases where there is already a custodial measure in place, as in the cases of apparent offenders at the time,” continues the judge.

Ghica is also of the opinion that psychological counselling is also needed after sentencing, once women are in prison.

“On the other hand, if we think about the protection of the victim of violence who reacts violently in turn, here again there is a need for a psychological component. Right from the moment the act that triggers the referral to the judicial body takes place. And here, I think, the state is not doing very well”, continues the judge.

Mihaela says that in the six months she has been in pre-trial detention, she has only spoken to the prison psychologist once.

The ANP has told us that women who kill their husbands in response to domestic violence will receive psychological counselling if this is established following psychological assessments.

There are also two educational programmes that address the issue of aggression – the “Stop Violence!” primary prevention social assistance programme for domestic violence and the “Programme to reduce aggressive manifestations. Women can get earning days or credits if they participate in such activities.

According to the institution’s employees, as well as lawyers and psychologists, women who kill and are victims of domestic violence quickly integrate into the prison and are unlikely to reoffend. The same was true in Mihaela’s case. Her colleagues were frightened when they heard she was in prison for murder, but once they got to know her and heard what she had been through, they put their fears aside.

Illustration by Roma Gavrilă

“He was a good man”

All of these cases had around them the so-called “dumb witnesses”, as they call them in court, who knew what was going on in that family but didn’t intervene. Most of the world tends to think it’s not your place to meddle in other people’s family problems and are shocked when things escalate and end in murder.

Women mark their suffering towards those around them, both physically and mentally. But the abuser does the same, trying to create an image for those around them that stops them from offering help to the victim.

“He, in front of other people, has the right attitude towards his wife. He doesn’t mistreat her, he speaks correctly. When she appeals to institutions, friends or family, he tries to say that she’s emotionally unstable and that he’s being nice to her. The problem would be that she doesn’t take her treatment”, concludes Raluca Pavel.

This is how some people end up, in extreme cases, saying “He was a nice man”. At that point, the victims end up alone again.

A report by the FILIA centre showed that over 400 women have been murdered in the family in the last eight years. Behind the figures are women like Mihaela, who have been dealing with their husbands’ abuse for years. Some of them kill for their lives.

Until Romanian society tries to heal the wound it has grown accustomed to, another woman gently dabs foundation on the bruises her husband has left on her face.

That’s what Mihaela did every day so she could go to work. She would tie a scarf, cover the marks and hope to escape the ordeal. Now she awaits her sentence. And there are many more like her.

Resources for victims of domestic violence:

Photo: Illustration for this article by Roma Gavrilă

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