In her documentary film, ‘Til Death Do Us Part (2008), Vita Lusty brings fresh insight to the plight of women languishing in prison for killing their abusive domestic partners. Rather than tackling the perhaps unanswerable question of whether or not killing is ever justified—even in the face of chronic, life-threatening violence—Lusty artfully reveals how justice is never served for many women given life sentences for murdering in self-defense.
Prior to 1992, evidence of physical abuse was inadmissible in criminal trials, and a history of spousal abuse was not allowed as a defense in most murder trials. By ignoring the conditions that led to murder, the justice system avoided addressing whether these women’s actions were done in self-defense.
‘Til Death Do Us Part shares the life stories of twelve women incarcerated in California before battered women syndrome became an acceptable explanation for why a woman might murder her domestic partner. Today, with this informed understanding of the conditions that lead women to stay with abusive partners, a woman is more likely to receive a lesser sentence, such as voluntary manslaughter, and not first degree murder and a life sentence for killing a violent spouse.
Lusty’s documentary chronicles how the justice system fails women tried before 1992, often keeping these women locked up despite lacking reasonable evidence that they pose any threat to society (many are elderly). All the women in the documentary have served over a decade behind bars and fulfill sentencing requirements for the lesser manslaughter charge. Yes, justice is served, but not for these women still victimized by antiquated laws and lingering misconceptions about the nature of violence in intimate relationships.
‘Til Death Do Us Part stays true to Lusty’s commitment to give voice to women who have been unjustly silenced. Lusty respectfully weaves in expert testimony with the women’s stories of domestic violence and their later victimization by the judicial system. We learn just enough from experts to understand factors contributing to domestic violence and how the judicial system fails battered women.
‘Til Death Do Us Part shows the justice system has much further to go in serving justice to battered women. The film highlights the efforts of the California Habeas Project—a group working for the release of women tried for murder of an abusive partner prior to 1992—but as the film illustrates, what should be a straightforward process is bogged down by false impressions, politics, and inattention.