Many Americans hold dear the right to a gun for self-defense, and the passage of Stand-Your-Ground laws has expanded the right to use deadly force in self-defense in many states. But what happens when a woman uses SYG to protect herself from intimate partner violence?
Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health.
Celine Gounder: This episode includes adult language and descriptions of domestic violence. Please use discretion. OK, on with the show.
Caroline Light: There’s a major difference there in terms of who’s allowed to defend themselves…
Mary Anne Franks: You have the right to stay in your own home and be able to meet force with force. What is that supposed to mean for domestic violence incidents?
Callie Adams: I’m screaming at people, “Please, please call 911.”
Caroline Light: When black and brown women stand up to oppressive systems… they’re often accused of being angry and therefore dismissed.
Celine Gounder: Welcome back to “In Sickness and in Health,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America. Last episode we looked at the deadly combination of guns and intimate partner violence. Today, we’re digging deeper into this topic. We’re going to look at what happens when women use guns… sometimes with deadly results… to defend themselves. The answers aren’t so obvious.
Caroline Light: So if I claim that I am afraid for my life and therefore have used lethal violence against another person, it has everything to do with what is my race, what is my gender, and what is the race and gender of the person I’ve killed or maimed.
Celine Gounder: This is Caroline Light. She’s a professor at Harvard College.
Caroline Light: So it’s actually a really complicated dance, a complicated alchemy of different identities that we have to take into consideration when we think about lethal self-defense in this nation because when you kill somebody in self-defense, you have to prove that you were reasonable in killing that person.
Celine Gounder: Proving that you’re “reasonable” when you kill someone in self-defense is not as easy as you might think, and it has a lot to do with who you are… and who threatened you. Take the case of Carol Stonehouse.
Caroline Light: Yes… I found this case absolutely fascinating.
Celine Gounder: Carol Stonehouse was a police officer working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1980. Soon after she joined the force, Carol briefly dated a fellow police officer named William Welsh. When she tried to end the relationship… it became violent.
Caroline Light: For several years she tried to avoid this man who would stalk her, who would threaten her… at one point I believe he showed up at her house, broke into her house, destroyed some of her belongings. At one point he left her flowers and said those were the flowers for her funeral.
Celine Gounder: As a cop herself… Carol reported William’s behavior to Internal Affairs at the police department. Nothing was done. She called the cops on him. Nothing was done. Carol moved eight times in just three years to try to avoid William’s aggressions. He kept on stalking her.
Caroline Light: …finally one night he came to her home and he threatened to kill her.
Caroline Light: He broke into her home, she called the police, the police didn’t arrive for a while, and then she managed to force him back outside.
Celine Gounder: During all this, William had a .357 Magnum revolver. Now, he was behind the house. Carol stepped out on to her back deck when…
Caroline Light: He said, “You’re done now, I’m going to kill you,” and instead she pulled out her gun and shot him. …the police finally arrived, found that the ex-boyfriend was dead in the yard, and they arrested Carol Stonehouse.
Celine Gounder: Carol was arrested and convicted of third-degree murder. She was sentenced to seven to fourteen years in prison.
Celine Gounder: In the United States there’s something called the Castle Doctrine. It’s this idea that your home is a protected place—your castle—and you’ve got the right to defend it… if need be… with deadly force.
Caroline Light: The big question is who really has a right to the castle… typically our courts and our justice system are going to interpret the man as having a higher stake in ownership of that castle or the home that they share.
Celine Gounder: This is a difficult problem to parse out, especially when the attacker lives in the same home as the victim.
Celine Gounder: But Carol’s stalker didn’t even live with her. The final attack took place after William broke into her home.
Caroline Light: Carol Stonehouse’s case is also fascinating because she was defending her home. Her ex-boyfriend had absolutely no possessive rights in her property, and she was on her property when she shot and killed her ex-boyfriend, and yet she still went to prison for wrongful violence. So that’s a great question about who’s home, who gets to defend their home? Who actually has ownership over the home or the castle that we hold to be so sacrosanct.
Celine Gounder: In the end, the jury didn’t believe Carol that… despite the years of harassment and threats… she had a reasonable fear for her life.
Celine Gounder: Years later, in 1990, Carol got a retrial, and she was acquitted. The judge in the second trial, Judge John W. O’Brien, said Carol was the victim of “battered woman syndrome” and was “in a frenzied state. She reasonably believed that she was in imminent danger of death at the time she fired her weapon at Welsh.”
Caroline Light: I find it fascinating that our dominant society likes to celebrate this notion that everybody has a natural right to defend themselves, when in reality when you look at Carol Stonehouse and other survivors of intimate partner violence, when they try to protect themselves from their violent male partners, they end up going to prison.
Celine Gounder: The right to use deadly force in self-defense has greatly expanded in many states. The passage of so-called Stand-Your-Ground laws eliminates the duty to retreat from a threat… in other words, you’re not required to first try to avoid violence before using force to defend yourself. Florida has one of the most expansive Stand-Your-Ground laws. George Zimmerman successfully used a Stand-Your-Ground defense when he was charged with murder for killing Trayvon Martin. But what happens when a woman uses Stand-Your-Ground to protect herself from intimate partner violence?
Callie Adams: My name is Callie Adams. I am a 22-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida.
Celine Gounder: By the time she was in sixth grade, Callie knew she wanted to be a Marine. Her stepdad was a Marine. When she was 16, she met Rodney. They had an instant connection.
Callie Adams: We started off friends, we hung out. We laugh. We joke.
Celine Gounder: They were young and in love.
Callie Adams: It was great. It was absolutely amazing.
Celine Gounder: They broke up when she graduated high school. Callie joined the Marines. But they never lost touch. And then they reconnected… and decided to get married.
Callie Adams: He was somebody that I felt was my soul mate. I wanted to marry him. I wanted to be his wife.
Celine Gounder: Callie described Rodney as “happy-go-lucky.”
Callie Adams: When we first were together, I think I saw him upset one time. … He wasn’t combative.
Celine Gounder: But when they moved to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina… where Callie was stationed.
Callie Adams: That’s when I saw the anger side of him.
Celine Gounder: Married life wasn’t like it was in those high school sweetheart days.
Callie Adams: If something ticked him off, he went from zero to like a 120 in like 3.2 seconds. … There was no buildup.
Celine Gounder: Rodney’s temper could explode on Callie… or their kids.
Callie Adams: My kids, of course. You have to stand in the middle of him when he disciplined them. You have to say, “Hey, that’s enough.” … I had to always monitor him when he disciplined them to ensure that he didn’t hurt them to a point where they need medical attention.
Celine Gounder: One time, a fight landed Callie in the emergency room. A nurse tried to warn her—this isn’t going to stop. But Callie wouldn’t believe it.
Callie Adams: That’s all I knew. I didn’t know anything else. Yeah, my uncles were violent with their wives. … It was always a thought process, “Well, what did you do to make them feel that way… or something of that nature. … You know, that was my mindset. Honestly, truthfully I thought that a lot of the times I thought, “Well, had I not done this then he wouldn’t do this.”
Celine Gounder: Callie never pursued a restraining order. Rodney was never arrested for domestic violence.
Celine Gounder: For Valentine’s Day one year, Rodney got Callie a handgun. At the time, she was working as a recruiter for the Marines. Rodney thought she needed a gun… something to protect herself from strangers.
Callie Adams: So I would be out late at night by myself. Because I was a recruiter, I’d have to talk to people or see people. It was something that he felt I needed to have.
Celine Gounder: So Callie had a gun… and she had a concealed weapons permit. Sometimes, she kept the gun in her truck’s console.
Celine Gounder: Then on July 22, 2011, Callie and Rodney went out to celebrate their anniversary.
Callie Adams: We had left the house to go to one club and we were there and partied and had a good time and we got to happy hour. At that club we had some drinks. He had Long Island Iced Tea and I have what they call a “Lay Me Down.”
Callie Adams: At about nine o’clock he was like, “Hey, let’s go over to this other club.” I was like, “Okay, fine, we can go over there.”
Callie Adams: We had been talking to a couple people in the club so everybody got in their cars and we went over to the other club.
Callie Adams: So we got there.
Callie Adams: We were actually in the club we spoke to some people that we knew.
Celine Gounder: When they got there, Callie sat down and started talking to some friends. Rodney left for the bathroom. After a while, Callie and a girlfriend left to use the bathroom, too.
Callie Adams: So I come back from the bathroom, me and her, and he’s looking for me. He’s like, “Where you’ve been?” I was like, “I went to the bathroom. I told the girl to tell you I went to the bathroom.” He’s like, “I’ve been looking for you for an hour.” I said, “Rodney, you have not been looking for me for an hour. I just went to the bathroom.”
Callie Adams: He was like, “Fine, I’m ready to go.” I’m like, “Okay, not a problem.”
Callie Adams: By this time, I didn’t realize he was as upset as he was.
Celine Gounder: Callie and Rodney said goodbye to their friends and left the club. Rodney was fuming.
Callie Adams: So we get to the car, and I’m on the driver’s side of the car, and he’s walking towards the passenger side. He goes, “You’ve been missing forever.” I was like, “Rodney, you have not been looking for me for an hour. I just went to the bathroom.”
Callie Adams: And by the time I turned around, he is around the car… saying, “Bitch, you’re not going to fucking yell at me.” He grabs my head and starts to hit me.
Callie Adams: So I sit down in the driver’s seat, and he begins to hit me. Well, in the console of the car that we’re in, was my gun.
Callie Adams: I was able to get it out of the console, and I pointed it to him and said, “Just back up, and let me go. I told you to stop hitting me.”
Callie Adams: He backs up out of the car, out of the driver’s side door. I closed the door, set the gun on the seat of the car, and went to go put the car in reverse, and he jumped in the back seat.
Callie Adams: …And I’m backing out, and at this time he’s like, “Bitch, you pull a gun on me, I’ll kill us both.” He begins to hit me, strike me in the back of my head.
Callie Adams: I was scared. It was a lot going on. I can’t pinpoint all the emotions that I was feeling, but I didn’t know why we were at the point that we were at. I was just scared. I’m like, “Why is he hitting me?”
Callie Adams: And at this time, I’m slowly going through the parking lot, trying to get out of the parking lot, and I’m saying, “Stop hitting me. Just stop hitting me.” And he kept going, so I grabbed the gun. … I don’t know how he was hit. All I know is I fired… the gun … and he got… he got hit.
Celine Gounder: Callie stopped the car. She pulled Rodney out of the backseat. She called 911. Started CPR. A police officer showed up. She begged him to call an ambulance. He put her in the backseat of his squad car, and they left.
Callie Adams: They told me when I got to the police station that he died at the scene.
Callie Adams: And so I gave my statement, and they placed me under arrest.
Celine Gounder: That’s in stark contrast to how the police treated George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case… also in Florida… not two hours away.
Mary Anne Franks: That was one of the most shocking things about the case was the fact that he wasn’t arrested.
Celine Gounder: That’s Mary Anne Franks. She’s a professor at the University of Miami Law School.
Mary Anne Franks: Trying to imagine what the scenario was like that that you have police called to the scene, and you have a young black man who’s dead, and you have someone like George Zimmerman saying, “I killed him in self-defense.” Even though they do question him they, don’t actually arrest him. It isn’t for months until public outcry that he is actually arrested.
Mary Anne Franks: And if we could try to imagine a scenario where if the shooter had been African American or really any other scenario where you could imagine that the police officers would simply say, “Well, yes, there’s a dead person here, but the other person is saying that it was justified, so I guess we’re just going to believe them.” That was a really a shocking moment because it’s hard to imagine that happening in any number of other cases—if the victim had been white, if this had been some other type of neighborhood. Really hard to imagine.
Mary Anne Franks: According to the police department, the reason why they acted that way was because Stand-Your-Ground law said that they were not allowed to arrest Zimmerman. That was not actually a misreading of the law. If you look at what the statute actually says, it says if someone has acted in accordance with the section that details Stand-Your-Ground, they’re not supposed to be criminally prosecuted, including being investigated. So, however much flack the Police Department might have gotten for that, and rightfully so, they were not wrong to say that the statute essentially tells them that that’s what they have to do.
Celine Gounder: Callie… on the other hand… was straightaway arrested and charged with murder. The prosecuting attorney said Callie wasn’t afraid for her life. She said Callie was angry.
Callie Adams: She stated that I didn’t display any type of remorse. … I never reported domestic violence before so … I wasn’t an abused wife because I made most of the money. I could have left at any time.
Celine Gounder: The murder charge rested on this image of Callie as an angry woman who showed no remorse at the death of her husband, specifically when she made the 911 call.
Celine Gounder: Critics point out that the prosecution’s characterization of Callie was essentially that of a stereotypically “angry black woman.” That Callie, as a woman of color, wasn’t capable of experiencing reasonable fear for her life.
Celine Gounder: Yet… Callie was still expected… somehow… to escape.
Callie Adams: Their thing was, “You could have got out of the car and went and told somebody.” … I’m sorry, I don’t know people that are in a fight or being jumped on they can say, “Hey, can you wait a minute while I go and tell somebody that I’m being assaulted?”
Celine Gounder: Mary Anne says Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law does little for women like Callie who are the victims of intimate partner violence.
Mary Anne Franks: The courts have answered this overwhelmingly by saying that really it’s about the man’s right to stand and fight because when women stand and fight, they are often accused or in fact convicted of things like manslaughter, or even homicide, even if they happen to be defending themselves.
Celine Gounder: In fact, Mary Anne says Stand-Your-Ground laws like the one in Florida can actually make it more difficult for a woman to defend herself from intimate partner violence.
Mary Anne Franks: There is for instance a provision in the Stand-Your-Ground law in Florida that says that when they’re talking about the presumptions that a person has inside their own home about whether or not they can use reasonable force, this will not apply to someone who is responding to another person who is a lawful inhabitant of that residence. … In other words, in the typical domestic violence victim scenario, the person who is afraid of the person who happens to live in the home should not be able to use Stand-Your-Ground as a defense.
Celine Gounder: Mary Anne echoes a theme we talked about last time in Episode 6. Women are far more likely to be attacked by an intimate partner—a husband, ex or boyfriend—than by a stranger.
Mary Anne Franks: I mean if we think about the fact that the vast majority of female victims of crime are not being attacked in the alleyway by strangers. They’re being attacked by people they know—by boyfriends, by husbands. … Unless we think that women are going to strap a gun to their thigh every time they have a dinner with their husband or every time they go out on a date, you can’t really imagine that these guns would be effective in the situations where they would need self-defense the most.
Celine Gounder: Caroline Light, the professor who told us about Carol Stonehouse, agrees.
Caroline Light: …what often gets lost or dismissed in the discourse around guns for self defense is the fact that arming women is not going to solve our sexual violence or domestic violence problems because the law is not necessarily geared towards protecting women from their own partners.
Celine Gounder: Callie posted a $100,000 bond and was on house arrest for six years. She also had to pay more than $300 a month for an ankle monitor. She had to liquidate her 401(k) to pay for the bond and her lawyers. She got by on donations and support from family. A friend of Callie’s helped her get a job, but it had to be something simple that could be done from home. She missed weddings, funerals and graduations.
Celine Gounder: And then a new state attorney was elected.
Jim Piggott, News4Jax reporter: State Attorney Melissa Nelson says, “Dropping the charges is the right thing to do.”
Melissa Nelson: Since February, personally I have taken a thorough review of the entire matter.
Callie Adams: She took a look at my case.
Melissa Nelson: …and I have spoken to ever relevant witness and law enforcement…
Callie Adams: She talked to my children. She talked to his side of the family. She talked to his friends.
Melissa Nelson: And I have come to the conclusion that there does not exist a reasonable probability of conviction on the facts.
Callie Adams: …and she decided that, based on what was said, I had the right to defend myself.
Melissa Nelson: And for that reason, I have dropped the charges.
Callie Adams: …so she dropped the case.
Celine Gounder: Callie lost those six years and all her retirement savings. And of course she’s still struggling with the trauma of having killed the flawed man she loved. But she’s not bitter. She’s grateful that the state attorney dropped the case against her.
Callie Adams: I don’t know of any other miracle, honestly and truthfully. I’m just going to be honest. A black woman who’s been charged with a violent crime, to have her charges dropped? That ain’t nothing but a miracle.
Celine Gounder: When is it reasonable to use violent force in self-defense? What’s a credible threat? And when is your life in imminent danger? The answers to these questions hinge on assumptions we make about the aggressor and the victim. Women are all too often painted as emotional and not reasonable… whether that’s in politics, the workplace… or in intimate relationships. And black people are seen as more threatening than others.
Celine Gounder: “That ain’t nothing but a miracle,” says Callie… that a black woman charged with a violent crime was exonerated. That really struck a chord with me. It’s why in our next couple episodes, we’re going to take a closer look at how gun rights and fear… intersect with race.
Celine Gounder: If you or someone you know is experiencing intimate partner violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. That’s 1-800-799-SAFE. All calls to the hotline are confidential and anonymous. Again, that number is 1-800-799-SAFE.
Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. That’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. If you like what you hear, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show!
Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”