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In Chandroutie's defence

April 29, 2000
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

WHEN Gemma Smith brought Chandroutie's plight to the attention of NAEAP one felt the pain in her voice and her empathy for the victim. She, too, was raped by a "friend" she trusted. He drugged her on a date and advantaged her, as she remained helpless and defenceless.

He had taken her to dinner. Then, they went for drinks into which he poured the polluted substance. She remembers that night as though it were yesterday. She was having her period. Yet, it made no difference to a savage who was intent on violating her and satisfying his lust (or was it violence wearing the mask of lust?) "Had I seen him the next day, I would have killed him." That is how deeply this savage violated Gemma. Chandroutie's pain and suffering were her own.

Gemma realised that Chandroutie's defense could not be complete without introducing Battered Women's Syndrome (BSW) and Post-traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD). While BWS involves the use of violence to exert power and control over another person, usually women; PTSD follows psychological trauma. It is a disorder that involves flashbacks, intensive memories, anger, sleep disorders, avoidance and disassociation; a condition in which past experiences intrude and undermine the present.

When I was a boy in Tacarigua, my neighbour Russell beat his wife with a horsewhip with metal tips from the standpipe to her home (about 200 yards away) because she remained too long at the standpipe. In those days, we did not have pipe-borne water in our homes so the women used the occasion to congregate and to talk. Russell's woman (he really believed he owned her) had stayed too long and felt the consequences of her indiscretion. It was "his" woman. He could do what he wanted with her. None of those present intruded. We excused him because he was "a real ignorant man".

Thanks to the women's movement and feminism, those perceptions and ownership claims are changing. Feminism taught us that domestic violence is neither a personal nor a private matter but a criminal act. It symbolises male power over women; a distorted way in which many men realise their manhood; a contorted psychological manner in which men try "to control dey woman". Many see it as a means of "manners-ing one's woman." In its worst manifestation, murder results.

Male impotence is one reason why so many men have killed or maimed girlfriends or spouses within recent years.

Domestic violence does not result simply from fits of jealousy as male braggadocio has it. It is also a psychological response to a world that has grown beyond their control; the shrinking status of men who have defined themselves in terms of being "the man," the "bread winner," and the sun around which the world turns.

To be sure, the educational apparatus has done little to assist men to understand their changing social roles. Instead of devoting every minute of government's broadcasting time to the prowess of Panday and his minions, we should use that time to educate men and women about how to relate to one another in a new and complex world.

Increasingly, however, courts are beginning to understand that women's response to battering explains their behaviour. They are beginning to understand that dysfunctional behaviours of many women are related to how they respond when they reach breaking point. Increasingly, courts have begun to depend on expert witnesses to tell the jury why battered women act how they do.

A legal scholar noted: "The goal of expert testimony on battered woman syndrome is to explain the context in which a specific defendant acted in self-defense as well as to dispel the common myths and misconceptions about battered women" (Boston College Third World Law Review.)

BWS is not a defence. Rather, it is an important piece of evidence in which duress and coercion play important parts. In signing the confession, Chandroutie reasonably inferred that if she did not do what her husband wanted, serious bodily harm might have ensued. In the US, a judge can depart from the guidelines and impose a lesser sentence if he believes that the defendant committed an offence because of serious coercion, blackmail or duress. Did it ever occur to the police that Chandroutie might have been signing a confession under duress?

Chandroutie needs to demand a new trial or to appeal her sentence. New evidence should be presented within a framework that addresses the relevance of battering and domestic violence to the issues of the case; the usefulness of such evidence to the trier of fact; and the importance of the scientific base for the admission of evidence concerning BWS. Most importantly, a qualified expert must testify on Chandroutie's behalf.

Knowing what we know about BWS, Chandroutie should not have gone through what she has. Defenders of justice should use this occasion to educate the public, demand a new trial for Chandroutie, and make sure that such injustices do not happen in the future. NAEAP will contribute $1,000 to any defence fund that is started to achieve justice for Chandroutie.

A system that punishes the weak and the helpless because they are weak and helpless is a reproach to the system of justice. One jurist noted that any law that "requires innocent victims of terrorist threats to be tried for murder and convicted as murderers, is an unjust law" (JW Harris, Legal Philosophies).

Gemma believes that Chandroutie "is not supposed to be in prison at this time because she cannot receive the treatment she deserves. She should be outside the prison walls seeking treatment for the psychological trauma that has been inflicted upon her from childhood."

She needs a new trial, separate from her husband, so that she can make her own case. Advocates for justice should support Chandroutie. It's the most important statement we can make about women's rights and the dignity of our common humanity.

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