How we pre-package victims of domestic violence

Opinion: A jury didn't accept an abused woman killed her partner in self-defence. Julia Tolmie asks what this says about attitudes to women in violent relationships.

The High Court, Auckland, in pictured.
The High Court, Auckland.

Karen Anne Ruddelle was charged with murdering her partner. Last week, at the High Court in Auckland, she was acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter. Her defence was she acted without the mental element required for murder and in defence of herself and her 14-year-old son.

The jury did not accept she acted in self-defence.

The law on self-defence in New Zealand allows a person to use physical force to protect themselves against an attack by another person, even if the force is lethal. To decide on self-defence we ask three questions:

- What were the circumstances as she honestly believed them to be?

- In those circumstances was she acting in defence of herself or another?

- Was the force used reasonable in those circumstances?

What does this mean in the Ruddelle case? It means Karen Ruddelle was entitled to be judged as to what was reasonable in response to a threat from her partner towards her and her 14-year-old child - a man capable of extreme violence towards her and others when angry and drunk, and who was, at the time, angry and drunk. This was someone who had killed in the past, and had let her know - including by physically strangling her - that he could kill her.

In cases like Palmer v The Queen and Zecevic v DPP judges have said when deciding what is “reasonable” in self-defence, it is important to remind juries they are applying the test to someone in emergency circumstances – that in moments of “unexpected anguish” people don’t weigh the force they use “to a nicety” - and that it is important not to be too wise after the event.

Much was made of the fact that Ruddelle stabbed her partner twice – explicable by the panic of the moment and hardly unreasonable given the deceased’s past behaviour. In an unrelated case, Logan Haddon-Hardy who stabbed the man who was threatening him twice in the chest was acquitted on the basis of self-defence just three days before Karen Ruddelle was convicted.

The jury clearly thought, in the heat of the moment, Haddon-Hardy’s actions could not be dismissed as completely unreasonable.

Ruddelle’s case seems stronger - most women will need a weapon to defend themselves against a man and will be conscious it could be taken and used against them.

The final point about self-defence is the Crown must disprove the defence beyond reasonable doubt. That means if there is any plausible possibility that Karen Ruddelle was only doing what was reasonable to defend herself and her son in the circumstances she thought she was in, then the jury had to acquit her on the basis of self-defence. Even if it was most likely that she was not acting in reasonable self-defence they still have to acquit if there is a reasonable doubt that she might have been.

Given all of that, the fact that the jury had no reasonable doubt Karen Ruddelle was not acting in self-defence is somewhat surprising on the facts.

As someone who has read hundreds of homicide reports and cases over three decades, the facts of Ruddelle were predictable. However, usually female victims of family violence are killed by, rather than kill, their violent partners – three quarters of the victims of intimate partner violence homicides are women. But where victims in the relationship do use lethal violence they usually grab a weapon that is readily at hand, usually a kitchen knife, and inflict one, at the most two, injuries.

This stands in stark contrast with situations where abusive men kill their victims. These deaths are often triggered by the victim’s attempts at independence. The killings show high levels of premeditation and frequently extreme levels of violence (what the NZ Family Violence Death Review Committee has called “overkill”). In other words, the killing has no defensive features and is a continuation of the violence used by the offender against the victim.

Despite that we constantly emphasise family violence is unacceptable and implore victims to reach out for help, the help actually provided to women dealing with the most dangerous family violence offenders is rarely a good match for the harm they are experiencing. 

On one level the outcome in Ruddelle was not surprising at all. The jury did what most do in these cases – they almost never have enough doubt to allow self-defence for women badly abused by their partners. Despite that we constantly emphasise family violence is unacceptable and implore victims to reach out for help, the help actually provided to women dealing with the most dangerous family violence offenders is rarely a good match for the harm they are experiencing.

And when they really do find themselves in serious trouble and decide to defend themselves, we are highly judgmental.

We blame women for not calling the police – many women are killed before the police manage to get their address. We blame women for not separating when most women who are killed had separated or were trying to separate at the time. We expect her to initiate safety options unlikely to produce safety in any way that matters to her, such as in the Ruddelle case “running away” and leaving her 14-year-old son to take the brunt of his violence.

In an unprecedented move, defence counsel in Ruddelle called on family violence experts to testify about the nature of intimate partner violence – that it is a raft of abuse strategies, including violence and intimidation that have a cumulative effect over time and are directed at terrorising the victim and closing down her independence. That in a confrontational situation she might need to physically defend herself, but attempting to do so could make things worse by attracting retribution/escalating the violence. And that we do not currently have safety responses for women to match the operation and harm of intimate partner violence for women who are dealing with extreme levels of violence.

Why wasn’t this enough to give Karen Ruddelle the benefit of the doubt?

Only the jury will know the answer to this question and it may well be complicated. Attempting to address entrenched and unconscious ways of thinking about intimate partner violence via expert testimony in court may be difficult. And certainly Ruddelle was not the kind of Pākehā middle class woman whom people believe does not belong in the criminal justice system – such women are more likely to attract compassionate responses when their desperate actions take them there.

I am also of the view that the Crown in the Ruddelle case had an obligation to educate themselves about the nature of intimate partner violence in order to conduct their case responsibly. The Crown is reported as saying that being in an abusive relationship is not a defence to murder. Actually, you have as much right to defend yourself when you are under attack from an abusive partner as you have when under attack from anyone else. And you should have a great deal more credibility when you assert that you thought your circumstances were extremely dangerous.

The Crown is also reported as saying that the defendant used “excessive force against an unarmed man.” In fact, men who use violence can easily hurt, maim or kill with their bare hands and both women and 14-year-old boys are no match for them in unarmed combat. Women who seek to defend themselves from a man therefore almost always use a weapon and this fact should not make their self-defence case less credible.

Most of the population in New Zealand rarely experiences criminal victimisation. A small percentage of the population, however, endures more than half of all the crime that takes place. Those who bear the brunt of repetitive serious criminal offending in our community are often women like Karen Ruddelle. Part of the problem is how we choose to talk and think about what these women have endured over their lifetimes. We say that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or battered woman syndrome or some other form of trauma which made it difficult for her to think properly in dangerous circumstances. This automatically pre-packages her and her thinking as unreasonable.

What we should be focusing on is understanding the context she was responding to, the kinds of safety responses realistically available to her and the realities of her life. The fact that she has been living with abuse for a very long time and is still alive means that she has to be given credit for her expertise in reading and managing danger.

I would recommend that people read the recent report by Denise Wilson, Alayne Mikahere-Hall, Juanita Sherwood, Karina Cootes and Debra Jackson (Wāhine Māori: Keeping safe in unsafe relationships) in order to educate themselves about the realities of entrapment in the lives of Wāhine Māori.

Professor Julia Tolmie is from the Law School.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom How we pre-package victims of domestic violence 26 February 2020.

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