Defense unclear in hammer killing

Experts say Vancouver woman's behavior will make lawyer's job tougher

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Related story

What leads a woman to kill an abusive partner?

When her husband punched her in the eye the night of May 13, Donna Rae Williams struck no counterblow that could be construed as self-defense, she told detectives. She said she sat on the floor, until he allowed her to stand, and then went to bed.

The elapsed time between when her husband, Mark, allegedly beat her on the evening of May 13 and she killed him the morning of May 14 makes Williams' case a rarity among women who kill their husbands, said researchers who study domestic violence-related fatalities and their subsequent trials.

It also makes her defense more difficult, although not impossible, they say.

An argument could be made she feared for her life at the moment she killed her husband, researchers said, noting such defenses are rarely successful.

An insanity defense could also be used, depending on what psychiatric evaluations in the buildup to a trial reveal about Williams' mental state at the time of her actions and her competency to aid her defense.

What those who study this phenomenon agreed upon is there are many unknown details about the case that will likely not be known until it goes to trial. Among them is how defense attorney David Kurtz will challenge prosecutors' assertion that Williams is a murderer.

Williams is being held on suspicion of first-­degree murder. She is at the Clark County Jail in lieu of $750,000 bail. Her arraignment is set for Thursday.

Legal misnomer

Sue Osthoff abhors the term "battered woman's syndrome."

It implies the abused woman has some type of malady, which could not be further from the truth, she said. And it is not, nor was it ever, a legal defense for killing one's spouse, said Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Wom

en, in Philadelphia.

In the event a woman kills an abusive lover — be it a husband, boyfriend, etc. — their defense would most commonly be self-defense.

In the landmark case of Washington v. Wanrow, the defense attorneys argued a woman has the right to self-defense against harm to herself or her child. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in the case that jurors must consider the defendant's actions in light of her "perceptions of the situation."

"Generally speaking," Osthoff said, "the woman talks about how, 'I was afraid I was going to die,' not, 'I snapped.'"

Williams' actions, then, were "very unusual" in that they occurred hours after the abuse happened, Osthoff said.

Williams told investigators she saw the black ring around her left eye the morning after her altercation with her husband and "became frustrated," a police report revealed. She grabbed a hammer from the garage of their Sifton home and smashed him with it while he slept in their bed. She then went to a convenience store before hitting him again to ensure he was dead.

The sight of her black eye could have caused Williams to have a reaction akin to someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Deana Julka, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Portland.

Understanding a woman's frame of mind during an abusive relationship is hard unless you have been in such a situation, researchers said. Victims have senses of fear, coercion and isolation that manifest in different ways.

The psychological toll has led European researchers to liken domestic abuse to torture, said Taryn Lindhorst, an associate professor of social work at the University of Washington.

Suspicions of abuse

Next-door neighbor Amanda Bright observed Williams' black eye on Thursday, May 24, and immediately doubted her neighbor's tale that a car wreck produced it. Bright had noticed Williams' bruises before and suspected she was the victim of domestic abuse. She did not suspect Williams had killed her husband -- a fact that came to light six days later.

Williams told police she suffered years of verbal abuse, but only one unreported physical assault, according to the probable cause report. Verbal insults, as emotionally damaging as they can be, are not a justification to kill, researchers said.

Williams' daughter, Rukiya Droste, dismissed suggestions her mother suffered from "battered woman's syndrome." Williams' alcohol and prescription painkiller addictions clouded her thought processes, Droste said, to the point she erroneously felt she needed to kill her husband.

Droste, 34, acknowledged her parents' situation was far from ideal. The Texas resident left the home 17 years ago but stayed in touch with her parents by phone.

Droste said her father kept the couple's house and other items solely in his name and was "an enabler" of her addictions. But he did not prevent her from going places or seeing people, as abusers often do, Droste said. Her father often worked out of town removing asbestos from buildings, she noted.

"To me, there was always another way, another alternative," Droste said, referring to her mom's decision to grab the hammer. "What was going on in the house where she decided it's me or him, that's going to be it?"

While Osthoff, of the national organization, sympathized with Droste's grief, she expressed the need for a thorough investigation of the couple's home life.

"Did things change after (Droste) left? Maybe they did," Osthoff said.

'An open mind'

Droste believes her mother suffered undiagnosed mental health issues exacerbated by alcohol and drug dependency.

Whether mental illness played a role in Williams' actions could be an important part of her defense. Just how important will be unknown, Osthoff said, until psychiatric evaluations are performed.

Without question, there are facets to the case that don't make sense to the sane mind.

For instance, Williams' admission to police that she left her husband to suffer while she went to the store.

"I just let him lie there and die," Williams told detectives, according to the probable cause report.

This "speaks to retribution," Julka, the University of Portland professor said, describing the alleged killer's actions as sounding "so cold."

"She comes back and finishes the job," Julka said. "I would feel like that would hurt her (defense)."

Williams chose to alert police of her husband's death two weeks later, but when the dispatcher asked her why now, she did not know. She also did not know what she did with the hammer. She lacked emotion and sounded confused and distant.

"She sounds like she might have a mental illness on top of everything else," said Lindhorst, the University of Washington professor. "That doesn't sound like the behavior of someone in their right mind."

Should Williams be declared competent, her daughter's allegations of alcohol and drug abuse could lead to problems for the defense, Julka said.

"Do they question her account?" Julka asked. "Is she lying? Is she not able to remember accurately?"

Blood tests on Williams for substance abuse could factor into a jury's view of her, Osthoff said. It is unknown whether authorities took such samples.

There is also the issue of her conflicting statements made to the dispatcher and detectives about abuse. Did it happen over 30 years or was physical abuse a one-time thing?

Osthoff hoped the truth, whatever it was, would come to light.

"We need to keep an open mind at this point," Osthoff said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; http://facebook.com/raylegend;http://twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.