How Oklahoma’s domestic violence laws fail survivors


Source: Verified News Network

Brenda Golden and Mary Fish could be cut from the same cloth. Both women are Muscogee (Creek) citizens who grew up in crowded, rural Oklahoma homes, where food and words of affection were spare.

Both endured abuse as children, and later, as adults.

During an Oklahoma House of Representatives interim study conducted recently, Golden, an Okmulgee attorney, recalled going to her classes at the University of Oklahoma with sunglasses on to cover bruises. She remembered fighting back against her partner’s abuse when she was pregnant with twins, slamming an ashtray against his head, and receiving one of many visits from police that eventually led to the couple’s eviction.

The abuse ended in 1991, when Golden was living with her mother. Golden’s partner came to the home, and her stepfather tried to protect her from more abuse, leading to a fight between the two men. Golden ran to the kitchen, grabbed a knife and stabbed the man who had hurt her for years.

“He left, and he never came back,” she said. “I never let him come back because … it scared me that I had to go to that length, and I did everything I could from that point on to just put him out of my life.”

Because he never filed a police report, Golden was able to move forward.

Fish, on the other hand, has spent most of her adult life in prison. In 1982, she received a 10-year sentence for manslaughter.

“I woke up to a man on top of me,” Fish told The Nation. She stabbed him with a paring knife, and he died after asking for help at a neighbor’s house, The Oklahoman reported.

Fish is currently serving an eight-year sentence for burglary. Golden said that during Fish’s time outside of prison, she couldn’t find housing or a job, and she turned to what was readily available—drugs and alcohol.

“The difference between Mary and I is basically nothing, except that I got a break,” Golden said through tears. “I wasn’t reported for fighting back against my abuser, and she was. And I’m currently an attorney, and she’s currently incarcerated.”

As of 2020, Oklahoma had the second highest female incarceration rate in the country, with the state imprisoning women at a rate more than twice the national average, according to The Sentencing Project. Incarceration disproportionately impacts women of color, whose time in prison breaks up families and enables generational cycles of trauma and incarceration.

Lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates have pointed out that women in Oklahoma are often punished more harshly than men for child neglect and abuse offenses, even when they never committed the abuse themselves. 

Survivors of intimate partner violence may face skepticism, criminal charges and prison time when they defend themselves against physical and sexual abuse, including in cases when the abuse is well documented.

Why Oklahoma women can face lengthy prison sentences

During the interim study, attorneys said some Oklahoma judges and prosecutors have poked holes in abuse survivors’ narratives when they hadn’t filed protective orders or attended court hearings to receive a final protective order. 

But survivors often don’t file or follow through with protective orders out of fear for their lives or concerns a court order won’t stop the abuse.

[ Read more: Improved access to mental health care in Oklahoma could help reduce female incarceration, advocates say ]

State Rep. Carol Bush (R-Tulsa) said she was in an abusive relationship in the past, and she never filed a protective order. She worried that her abuser would return, and if police didn’t arrive in time, her life would be at risk.

“The cops told me, ‘You’ve got to file it,’” she said. “Well, you don’t live here 24/7. Who’s to say he’s not coming back and abusing me?”

Leigh Goodmark, a professor in the University of Maryland’s law school, said a push during the 1970s and 80s to prosecute domestic violence had unintended consequences. Abuse survivors were increasingly arrested for intimate partner violence that was committed in self-defense against their abusers.

Goodmark argued that prosecution of those cases should consider abuse survivors’ histories with trauma and the role that abuse may have played.

“The violence they’ve experienced is a significant factor in these crimes, and it needs to be acknowledged,” she said.

Another factor in Oklahoma’s high female incarceration rates could be mandatory minimum sentences, which require those convicted to serve a minimum amount of time in prison for certain crimes. Goodmark said those sentences leverage defendants to take plea deals, even in cases where they were acting in self-defense.

Mandatory sentences also block judges from choosing sentences with less prison time than the required minimum when abuse and self-defense are factors.

“There’s no opportunity to take that into account,” Goodmark said. “So as a result, increasing numbers of women are serving life and life-without-parole sentences.”

April Wilkens has served more than 20 years on a life sentence for the murder of her ex-boyfriend, Terry Carlton. Wilkens told Verified News Network in March that Carlton had stalked and abused her, and he had beaten and sexually assaulted her on the day he died, when she shot him to protect herself.

Only Illinois and New York have criminal codes that offer reduced sentencing for abuse survivors. Those laws rarely result in shorter sentences, The 19th reported last year.

Contact editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or Follow her on Twitter.

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