Nancy Seaman, a battered woman imprisoned for killing her husband in self-defense, remotely shared her story with a crowd who listened intently 174 miles away.
The group gathered Tuesday evening at the Spring Lake Country Club to launch a grassroots effort to change a ruling – People v. Christel – that limits expert testimony regarding battered spouse syndrome in the trials of those accused of fighting back against their abusive partners.
Seaman described herself to the audience as a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, coworker, neighbor, Cub Scout den mother, and elementary school teacher.
“I am not a criminal, but a survivor of domestic abuse,” she said, sharing how the morning of her husband’s death he’d come at her in a drug- and alcohol-fueled rage because he’d discovered her secret plan to leave him.
As he put his hands on her, he told her, “I’ll see you dead,” she remembered. “I had no doubt I was in danger.”
At 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, Seaman was “no match for Bob” and his “189 pounds of rage. He’d overpower me as he always did before.”
She swung the first thing that came to hand on the garage floor where he’d knocked her down. That blow killed him, an autopsy would later reveal.
Seaman has served 14 years of her life sentence in the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.
“We have been unjustly incarcerated for defending our lives,” she said of herself and other women who had expert testimony in their cases limited due to the 1995 People v. Christel ruling.
Nels Thompson, a retired psychologist who treated men convicted of domestic violence and incarcerated women who are domestic violence survivors, said Seaman and many other women are wrongfully jailed for finally fighting back against years-long abuse.
“It makes me mad, and it breaks my heart,” he said. “I can tell you for a fact that the homes that they lived in were prisons. With regular dehumanizing sexual assault, verbal and demeaning assault, and physical assault. It gets worse as time goes on. In the most terrible cases, somebody is going to die. Four to 1 it’ll be the lady. Two to 1 it’ll be a child. The last will be the male abuser. He dies less frequently in the final, violent episode.”
Yet, he said, when a woman defends herself or her children, she is frequently, unfairly cast into prison for the rest of her life.
“It has been said we do not change the world when we whisper; we change the world when we roar,” Thompson shared in his impassioned plea. “Change is coming.”
Kelle Lynn is executive director of Justice Thru Storytelling – the non-profit organization spearheading the campaign to change the People v. Christel ruling.
Lynn, a domestic violence survivor, said it is truly heartbreaking to know battered women face a double injustice when they go before Michigan courts in that jurors are unable to get the full picture before issuing verdicts in their cases.
Asking legislators to reverse the People v. Christel ruling, retroactively, is the solution, she said.
“Together, we will make a difference,” Lynn said. “Together, we will obtain #Justice4Women.”
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack explained to the audience how the People v. Christel ruling set the standard for how expert witnesses may testify in cases in which the defendant claims to be a victim of battered spouse syndrome.
The court must currently limit a domestic violence expert’s testimony in such cases. The experts may only provide perspective “at 10,000 feet,” she said.
So, essentially, the event panelists said, experts may talk about the symptoms of battered spouse syndrome, but they are unable to say whether the defendant suffers from it or how it may apply to the case.
As a judge, McCormack must carry out the rule of law whether she likes it or not, and suggested it is up to legislators to “make the kind of changes that can make a difference.”
Retired Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jack McDonald felt uneasy about how the People v. Christel ruling played out in his courtroom in Seaman’s case.
In his 17 years on the bench, one or two first-degree murder cases came through his court every year. With each conviction, he said he “sentenced all those people to life in prison and slept well… they deserved it. Society had to be protected.”
Until Seaman’s case. “It bothered me from the day the jury came back with a verdict,” he said.
He believed the jury got it wrong because of the “evidence they did not hear.”
McDonald’s respect for justice would not allow him to turn a blind eye when he felt justice was not served.
“I just feel I follow my conscience,” he said, adding he couldn’t “live with myself for sentencing a woman to life who didn’t deserve it.”
He reversed the case. The court of appeals reversed his reversal, two to one.
Yet he persists with his advocacy for Seaman and for demanding a change in People v. Christel. He believes, if the jury had been able to hear full testimony from experts in domestic violence, that at most Seaman would have been convicted of manslaughter, or possibly been found not guilty because of self-defense.
Dean Robb, legendary civil rights lawyer, couldn’t attend the event because of failing health, but shared his opinion via a pre-recorded video message.
He applauded McDonald and the efforts to change People v. Christel. He said the ruling has been used to prevent women from using battered spouse syndrome in their pleas for self-defense and “it’s like cutting off their lifeline.”
“It’s archaic and impossible to believe the courts in Michigan will not allow battered women that defense today,” Robb said. “It’s a disgrace.
While there is currently no drafted legislation that would address People v. Christel, Lynn said that’s the next step, and she’s determined to push this agenda forward with legislators.
The first step for folks interested in joining the cause, she noted, is to call their local legislators, tell them they’ve heard about the People v. Christel ruling and ask that it be changed. Or, people can learn more about the ruling and send emails to their legislators and letters to the governor by going to the nonprofit’s website at jtsadvocates.com.
Jeanette Schipper, a 30th district candidate for Michigan State Senate, spoke up at the forum, expressing her support for such legislation.
“You have me in your corner if I’m elected,” she said, sharing that she’s also a survivor of domestic violence and she spent more time with her jaw wired shut than her abuser spent in jail.
“We don’t have justice from the beginning for women,” Schipper said. “We need to be proactive in our policies and our legislation. … We can make a difference.”