Globe and Mail

How to get away with murder (for women only)

The Globe and Mail
Saturday, March 10, 2001

One hot summer night in 1999, Rita Graveline and her husband, Michael, went out to the pub. It was a typical evening, no different from a zillion others in their generally miserable marriage. They drank. He chewed her out for forgetting to bring his darts, then chewed her out for playing five bucks on the lottery machine. Then they went home. He chewed her out for misplacing the key and gave her a shove. She told him he was an old drunk and sent him to bed to sleep it off.

What happened next was not typical. Rita got hold of her husband's ancient hunting rifle, and loaded it. She went upstairs, where he was sleeping off the booze, and shot him. The bullet broke two ribs, perforated his liver, then travelled through his lungs and heart before it lodged in his shoulder. Michael was dead as a doornail. She covered him with a comforter and called 911.

Now don't get me wrong. I have a lot of sympathy for Mrs. Graveline, who worked at the time as a grocery store cashier in the town of Luskville, Que. She endured 31 years with this guy, who, by most accounts, was nice when sober but mean when drunk, and he was drunk a lot.

Still, she did kill a man.

"I took away the father to my children and the grandfather to my grandchildren," she told the police. "I know I'm going to prison for the rest of my life."

On that, however, she was wrong. Last week, a Hull jury (10 women, one man) acquitted her of all charges. Mrs. Graveline, who's 52, was the beneficiary of a defence strategy that has proved remarkably successful in ensuring that women go free when they kill their husbands.

Mrs. Graveline's lawyer deployed a now classic defence that puts the victim (i.e., the dead person) on trial. The goal is to convince the jury that the real victim is not the killee but the killer, a task made easier because the live person is a pathetic woman weeping on the stand and the dead person isn't around to defend himself. Add a large helping of psychobabble, and your client will walk.

Mrs. Graveline told the jury that she couldn't remember the shooting at all. The first thing she did remember was holding the smoking gun in her hands. Several psychologists were produced to explain that she was in a state of "non-insane dissociative automatism" when she pulled the trigger. This robotic state was itself triggered by battered-wife syndrome, of which Mrs. Graveline was a clear example. Many witnesses were produced to describe the terrible way she'd been treated over the years. In other words, she snapped and popped the guy.

Battered-wife syndrome entered the Canadian legal world in 1990, when the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of a woman who'd killed her boyfriend. It said a battered woman who kills doesn't need to show she's facing "imminent peril" before she can plead self-defence.

The battered-wife ruling means that you can plead self-defence even if he's asleep in bed when you shoot him. And the automaton defence is what acquitted Dorothy Joudrie, the wealthy woman who pumped her estranged husband full of lead (without killing him) in 1996.

Lilian Getkate is another woman who walked free for shooting her husband dead. He was asleep, too. What's interesting about the evidence presented at her trial in 1998 was not how awful her husband, Maury, was, but how awful he wasn't. Did he beat her up every Saturday night? No. Did he beat their kids up? No. The bulk of the evidence dealt with what is known as psychological abuse. Witnesses "testified that Lilian had to follow him around like a little puppy," her lawyer said. "Others saw the fear in her eyes when she was with him." Maury, who was an RCMP psychologist, also had a bad temper and yelled a lot. Their young daughter told police of "frequent screaming sessions between her parents with plants being thrown and dishes smashed." The jury also heard that Maury had a sinister interest in ninja martial arts.

Lilian Getkate was convicted of manslaughter but sentenced to part-time community service. She spent only 11 days in jail.

"I was startled," she said after the trial. "I took someone's life and I'm not going to jail. Of course I'm surprised by that." She took the kids and moved from Ottawa to British Columbia, where she hopes to work with battered women like herself. "I think I have something to give. Because of my experiences, I can help."

Okay. I don't think there's much point in sentencing these women to hard time in the slammer. And yet. Should we really let them walk? Alcoholic bullying, slapping your wife around, breaking the crockery, and generally behaving like a 100 per cent certified asshole for years on end are definitely bad things. But do they excuse summary execution?

We're appalled when rape cases are argued by putting the victim on trial. I guess there's another standard when the sexes are reversed. I guess that when some submissive, mild-mannered woman does something violent and completely out of character, we've got to reach for voodoo diagnoses to explain it. We'd rather judge her on her mental state (assuming we can know it) than judge her on her actions. We'd rather hold a woman's deeds to a lower moral standard than a man's. Besides, we all watched The Burning Bed,and rooted hard for Farrah.

Yesterday, I spoke with Pat Getkate, Maury's aunt. He was 37 when he died. She told me his family is still in mourning for him. They've tried without success to have the case appealed. They're religious people, but not too sophisticated about non-insane dissociative automatism. "Lilian learned the script," said Pat. "And nobody speaks for the dead."

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.