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Victims of the system


Carol (Herriman) Smith doesn’t remember shooting her husband, but she can’t forget the abuse that led her to that day in 1987 when she took a rifle her oldest daughter’s boyfriend had loaded for her and shot her husband as he sat on the toilet. She was in a drunken stupor, the alcohol a tonic to numb her from whatever torture Jim Herriman might decide to inflict on her or her daughters.

He might throw knives at his stepdaughter as she stood unclothed in the yard, or force his wife to use motor oil as a lubricant during an all-night rape that included the use of hairbrushes and beer bottles, or leave her purple with bruises from her waist to neck from incessant battering, or drag her by the hair to the car. He was, if nothing else, creative in his torture, conceiving the unthinkable, committing the unspeakable and threatening those who gave her shelter with death on the three occasions she had mustered the courage to leave.

On that night that’s still fuzzy in her mind, he was choking his stepdaughter, Carol’s oldest child, because she was planning to leave the violence she had grown up with and marry her boyfriend. With one rifle shot, one nightmare ended and another began.

Smith was charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and was assigned a court-appointed lawyer who had never tried a criminal case and, in fact, specialized in bankruptcy law. She had served 12 years of a 25-years-to-life sentence when then-Arizona Gov. Jane Hull granted her clemency in 2001, but she’s still haunted by the ghost of Jim Herriman. The light he took from her eyes remains lost, the tears still spill easily when she talks about what she can’t forget, and it’s apparent to anyone who speaks to her that her monster of a husband had kicked, beaten and humiliated most of the fight out of this diminutive woman.

The mostly female audience attending an Oct. 1 domestic violence conference sponsored by the American Judicature Society fell silent as Smith, whose formal education ended in eighth grade and who married for the first time at 13, whispered the story of the man she thought was her rescuer until the veneer of charm was peeled away to reveal a vicious tormentor.

The parallels between Smith’s case and the case of Dixie (Shanahan) Duty were inescapable. Both women were convinced that the only way they could escape their abusers, short of killing them, was in a body bag. In Arizona, Smith’s case prompted legislative reform. In Iowa, Duty’s case has renewed the debate over the treatment of battered women in the courts.

The problem is complex, involving not just the wording of Iowa’s statutes, but also mandatory sentencing laws that take away judges’ discretion, the availability of funding for programs that help turn victims of domestic abuse into survivors, the judiciary’s fiscal crunch and its impact on the availability of court-appointed defense attorneys with murder trial experience, and a myriad of trickle-down effects that have left abused women in this state with fewer safety nets and fewer advocates. Resources to help these women are “greatly diminished,” said Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Laurie Schipper.

Smith – still more a victim than a survivor and living on $600 a month, permanently disabled from the abuse – at least is free. The best Iowa women like Dixie Duty can hope for is jury nullification – an escape hatch the jury in Shelby County might have taken if they’d known the second-degree murder conviction they handed down would give the judge no option but to order her behind bars for at least 35 years, and perhaps as long as 50 years.

It’s past time in Iowa to change the way we think about domestic violence.

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