Newsportal - Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Perpetrators who killed their (ex-)partner were almost always concerned with maintaining power and control. Many control where the woman was, who she met, who she communicated with in chat.
Julia Habermann analysed court decisions from 2015 to 2017.
A homicide can be classified by the court as murder or manslaughter. This has an influence on the sentence.
“I’ll kill you if you come home this late ever again”
In the end, it’s a headline. “An incident of relationship crime is reported to have taken place in Bochum on Friday evening (4 December).” Early newspaper reports say little about the circumstances surrounding the crime. Even though in Germany a woman is killed by her (former) partner every third day, violence against women is insufficiently researched. Julia Habermann wants to shed light on the issue. The social scientist is working on her doctoral thesis on homicides in partnerships at the Chair of Criminology at RUB. She is first and foremost interested in how such acts are judged by the courts and how they are punished on these grounds.
“Reading some of the verdicts, you might get the impression that the sentences against the perpetrators were more lenient than in other cases of homicide where the victim is not the perpetrator’s partner or ex-partner,” she describes her initial observation. When determining a sentence, there are various factors that the court can take into account. Judges can classify a homicide as murder or manslaughter, which results in different sentencing lengths. If the offender’s culpability was diminished at the time of the offence, for example because it’s assumed that he acted in the heat of passion, the sentence can be reduced. The sentence may also be mitigated if the perpetrator confessed to the offence or if he had committed it on the spur of the moment. All these options do, of course, also apply to every other case of homicide. But are they applied equally to all of them?
Official statistics, such as police crime statistics or criminal prosecution statistics, don’t provide the necessary information: while police crime statistics do provide information on the gender of the victims and their relationship to the perpetrator, they don’t contain any information on convictions. The criminal prosecution statistics provide information about convictions, but they don’t contain any information about the victims.
Analysis based on 472 convictions
Julia Habermann examined court sentences for homicides to get to the bottom of this. She included a total of 472 offenders in her analysis whose sentences were pronounced for crimes of this category between 2015 and 2017. “It wasn’t that easy to get the verdicts for my research,” says Julia Habermann. First of all, she applied for an extract from the Federal Central Criminal Register at the Federal Office of Justice to find out the relevant file numbers that were of interest for her research. With this information, she could then contact the respective public prosecutors’ offices and ask for copies of the relevant court decisions. Except for a few, Habermann received copies of the judgements, which ranged from twelve to over 200 pages.
Several of the perpetrators had contemplated the crime before committing it.
A preliminary analysis shows that in cases of homicide against women, less than half of the perpetrators are convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Julia Habermann has also analysed homicides against (former) partners in a similar manner and then compared them to homicides against other persons.
In determining the length of verdicts, it’s also a question of which aspects the judges emphasise and how they write about the homicides. “I see in several judgements that the stereotypical notion is sometimes adopted, namely that such offences are spontaneous acts,” she points out. “At the same time, several of the perpetrators had already considered the idea of killing their (former) partner prior to the crime.” Several perpetrators had previously made death threats to their partner or voiced them to third parties. In some cases, perpetrators waylaided the victim – ostensibly to seek a conversation. The fact that they had a knife with them is not necessarily taken as a sign of a premeditated killing.
It's about power and control
Although what happened in the relationship before the woman is killed is addressed, some aspects may be emphasised more strongly, while others may fade into the background: over and over again, homicides against the (former) partner are all about the perpetrator’s maintenance of power and control over the woman. Perpetrators control who the woman spends time with and for how long, and where she goes. They read the chat history on the woman’s mobile phone, trace her phone calls, and watch every detail of her life with suspicion. They belittle her, undermine her self-confidence. “Without me you are nothing,” the man tries to convince her. References to these forms of psychological abuse and/or controlling behaviour are often only mentioned in passing. If the woman breaks up with her partner or plans to break up with him, he is in danger of losing control. As a result, he escalates the violence, in the worst case to the point of killing, in order to regain power and control.
“The control and violence that precedes the killing is often not the focus of court rulings,” says Julia Habermann. “Instead, there is often a strong focus on whether the woman’s behaviour was morally sound. Did she allow the ex-partner to talk to her after the separation? If so, she may have given him hope that the relationship could continue. Did she have contact with other men? This could have seemed like flirting or advances to him and contributed to his despair.
The wrong questions are being asked.
“One problem, of course, is that the women who were killed don’t have a voice in the trial,” says Habermann. “But the focus is wrong, too.” The researcher concludes that everyone involved in the process needs to question their perspective. People are all too inclined to adopt the perpetrator’s point of view. Julia Habermann also finds evidence of this in everyday life. The head-shaking question of why a woman who suffers violence at the hands of her partner doesn’t simply separate from him, for example. “There are financial dependencies, often children, moving house has to be organised, the separation often exacerbates the man’s control and violence towards his partner. And still, the woman may feel she has to ensure that the family stays together”, is how Julia Habermann describes it. “There are many aspects that can stand in the way of a separation, even when experiencing physical abuse.”
But there are also other judgements: those that emphasise the violence and control as well as the perpetrator’s claim to power and his possessiveness. These state that the perpetrator did not accept that his (former) partner wanted to live a life without him and to shape her life according to her wishes.
The researcher sees the root of the imbalance in the long history of patriarchy. Moreover, women were underrepresented in the legal system for decades. This has repercussions. People in the judiciary should therefore scrutinise their presumptions. “As early as in law school, students should be required to question their own attitudes and possible preconceptions,” she says. Julia Habermann hopes that the self-critical examination of one’s own views could also prevent other unjust practices. For example, that perpetrators who are perceived as German tend to be sentenced to lighter sentences than perpetrators who are perceived as foreign or alien.
Moreover, some people involved in the process don’t have all the information they need. “For example, Germany has ratified the Istanbul Convention, which states that domestic violence against women should be punished more severely. There are judges, both male and female, who don’t know this and therefore don’t apply it.”
The Istanbul Convention puts states like Germany, which have ratified it, under an obligation to take offensive action against gender-based violence. The Convention covers various forms of violence and addresses violence that is directed against women and girls or that affects them particularly frequently. The Convention also focuses strongly on domestic violence, from which persons of all genders are to be protected.
States are obliged, among other things, to counteract the occurrence of violence by raising awareness and increasing public understanding, to protect and support victims, to enact laws that make the forms of violence punishable, and to investigate and sanction the offences. It is also provided, for example, that courts can apply more severe punishment if the (former) partner had been inflicting violence.
In order to substantiate her thesis of lenient punishment for female partner homicide, Habermann compares the sentence for killing the female (ex-)partner with sentences for other homicide offences and conducts a statistical analysis of the verdicts. She is currently preparing her analysis for publication.
8 March 2022