What leads a woman to kill an abusive partner?

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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photoDonna Rae Williams, 51, makes a first appearance in court May 31 on a first-degree murder charge.

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The YWCA of Clark County’s SafeChoice Domestic Violence Program provides aid to victims. The phone numbers are 360-695-0501 or 800-695-0167.

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Whether Donna Rae Williams is a domestic violence victim who killed out of fear for her life or a cold-blooded murderer will likely be determined inside a Clark County Superior courtroom. But what is clear about Williams is, when she allegedly struck and killed her husband Mark with a hammer last month, she became a statistical anomaly.

In Washington, less than 10 percent of domestic violence homicides between January 1997 and June 2010 resulted from a woman killing a man, according to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Nationally, women were responsible for just 11 percent of homicides in the U.S. between 1976 and 2005, according to a U.S. Bureau of Justice study. Only 3 percent of male homicide victims between 1976 and 2005 were killed by an intimate partner, the same study revealed.

Williams is charged with suspicion of first-degree murder in the death of her husband, Mark, whom she was married to more than 30 years. She reported his death on Wednesday, May 30, but it is believed, based on statements she made to authorities, that he died May 14 inside their home in the Sifton neighborhood.

Williams told detectives she suffered years of verbal abuse and at least one unreported physical assault, according to a probable cause statement. Her husband punched her in the eye the night before she killed him, Williams said. The altercation began when she confronted him about cocaine use, she told detectives.

Clark County tied for fifth among Washington counties in domestic violence-related homicides between 1997 and 2010, according to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The county had 28 domestic violence-related homicides, including five apiece in 2001, 2004 and 2005.

The state, as a whole, had 566 domestic violence-related homicides in the years studied. Washington researchers found domestic violence had previously occurred in at least 40 percent of the instances where a woman killed her partner, said Jake Fawcett, fatality review coordinator for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

In 20 percent of the cases where the male partner died, prosecutors did not file charges because the woman clearly acted in self-defense, Fawcett noted. Eleven percent of those cases were brought to trial but did not result in a first- or second-degree conviction.

"What we've seen when that happens is it's because people can't find another way out or don't have any other options," Fawcett said, noting economic barriers often play a role.

Often in abusive relationships, the aggressor uses threats of violence to control the victim. However, physical abuse is often infrequent and "the tip of the iceberg," said Taryn Lindhorst, an associate professor of social work at the University of Washington.

"One of the most challenging things about domestic violence is it's so invisible what's happening on the inside of a relationship," Lindhorst said. "People have this simplistic idea (victims should) just leave, but it's so much more complicated than that."

The abuse might not manifest itself in bruises or broken bones.

Verbal threats or insults are ways an abuser acts to confuse the victim. The timing of the abuse also varies. One moment the abuser will be loving and the next their temperament will have flipped 180 degrees.

Often, the victim does not feel comfortable talking to people about what is happening, Lindhorst said.

In Williams' case, she visited her next-door neighbor Amanda Bright on Thursday, May 24. According to Bright, Williams had a black mark circling her left eye, which she claimed resulted from a car wreck.

It would be atypical for abuse in the Williams' marriage to begin later in life, Lindhorst said, unless a stressful event, illness, or drug/alcohol addiction occurred.

Options for victims

Williams' daughter, Rukiya Droste, said her mother suffered from addictions to painkillers and alcohol.

If Droste is correct about her mother, Williams' case would share a commonality with almost one-third of the 84 domestic violence-related fatalities the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence studied in-depth, Fawcett said.

It is not uncommon for abusers to force victims to drink or take drugs, Fawcett explained. Thus, events inside the abusive household often appear distorted to outsiders.

It is important for domestic violence victims, whether they are women or men, to know they have options besides becoming a statistic. For instance, the YWCA of Clark County's SafeChoice Domestic Violence Program provides aid to victims in this county. You can call them at 360-695-0501 or toll free at 800-695-0167.

"There's people you can talk to," Fawcett said. "It's free and optional, and you don't have to be ready to leave (your relationship)."

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