The film focuses on four Missouri women—including Shirley Lute, Tanya Mitchell, Carlene Borden, and Ruby Jamerson—who were given lengthy prison sentences after killing their abusive husbands. For many of us, the 2012 case of Marissa Alexander brought this topic to the forefront of our minds—in a high-profile trial, Alexander served over 1,000 days behind bars for firing a warning shot over her abusive husband’s head. As the story gained national attention, the country was faced with a big question: Are victims of domestic violence justified in defending themselves against their abusers? As seen in The Perfect Victim, the U.S. justice system often considers women who fight back against abuse to be criminals themselves.
Director Elizabeth Rohrbaugh opens with the typical jackassery that I have come to expect from our society: a radio talk show host, delivering the headlines to his listeners, explains in shock and horror what these terrible women have done to their poor husbands. Why didn’t they just leave? How can people think these women should be able to get away—literally—with murder? Why didn’t they call the police? Listeners call in and give their narrow-minded opinions.
Then comes the mic drop that gets the movie rolling: A woman calls in and, in a quiet and hesitant voice, says, “Hi, I’ve been beaten by my husband, and it’s not easy to just leave.” The host probes her, asking her what’s stopping her from “getting the heck out of there.” The caller sighs heavily, saying, simply: “I love him.”
Tanya Mitchell's husband Jimmy often beat her and threatened to kill her. After she shot him, she was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was granted release in 2013.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, when the documentary’s main subjects were convicted of murder, testimonies of previous abuse were inadmissible in Missouri courts in cases like these. In 1995, however, courts finally started acknowledging Battered Spouse Syndrome as part of these cases (why we have to pathologize trauma in order to validate women’s experiences is a discussion for another day). Still, defense attorneys encouraged their clients to keep prior abuse a secret, because the jury could see it as motive. In 1998, a group of lawyers created the Battered Women’s Clemency Coalition and selected 11 women who were incarcerated for killing their husbands before prior abuse was admissible in court. The coalition fought for them to be granted clemency, arguing that these women would never have been given such long sentences had the courts taken their trauma and abuse into account.
In 2004, the governor of Missouri, Bob Holden, granted clemency to two of these 11 women. One of these women was Shirley, a woman who endured horrific abuse since the age of four, first from her father and then from her husband, Melvin. Beaten, raped, and held captive, Shirley eventually asked her son to kill her husband. When the murder was discovered, she was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Shirley is the first “success story” of the documentary: We see show old footage of Shirley when she first appealed for clemency back in the late '90s, then present-day footage of her at home marveling at her singing-and-dancing teddy bears—unheard of before she was locked away in prison—and in a healthy relationship with another man.
The documentary switches from one storyline to the next as it details the lives of the four women, including Carlene, who married her abusive police officer husband when she was 14, and Ruby—the film’s sole Black victim—who, by the end of the film, is still incarcerated but is set to be released in the coming year. The storylines blended together so much that, truthfully, it was hard to keep everyone’s name and situation straight. But, the power of their stories came through even as the details got a bit confusing.
For me, the most insight I gained came from listening between the lines. Ruby, for example, starts talking about how if only she were thinking clearly enough, she should have just taken her son and left her abusive husband. “But sometimes,” she says, “you just get tired of running.” This internalized victim-blaming is so prevalent in our society, and is only a short jump away from the question of morality that plagues the documentary: Were these women right to kill their abusers? Should they have been sent to prison for decades for doing so?
The end of the documentary is hopeful. Though the women have trouble adjusting to life after prison, Shirley has married her boyfriend and is living happily, Carlene lives in her own apartment and works for a hotel housekeeping service, and Tanya is savoring the small joys of life with her family. “In prison, when you get a visit, it's a brief hug,” she says. “Now, I can hold my mom as long as I want to. I can give her a hug forever and not just until the count of five.” Meanwhile, Ruby is set to be released very soon. These four women were able—with a lot of aid from lawyers and volunteers—to get out of prison. But what about the other women left behind? The complex dimensions of the systemic problems don't get much explicit discussion in The Perfect Victim. Instead, we're left to consider on our own the thousands of women whose stories will aren't made into films. What about the 93 percent of women in California who were abused by the person they killed? The 75 percent of incarcerated women who are domestic violence survivors? The one in 10 women who will be sexually assaulted while in prison? It's also important to note that the documentary told the story of only one woman of color, when in reality, Black women are incarcerated three times more often than white women. But The Perfect Victim carries a heavy burden for addressing the issues that exist therein, since humane discussions of domestic violence and incarceration are so rarely seen on screen. While the documentary only scratches the surface on these huge problems, it could be fodder for a dozen more films.
Watch the trailer for The Perfect Victim: