Guest Post: What is Reasonable?

By: Corrine Mackenzie

In doing this research my ultimate goal is to see the change that is so desperately needed in Michigan regarding self-defense. If I have the right to defend myself against a perpetrator breaking into my home, then I certainly have the right to defend my life against a man who is battering me. I plan to obtain this goal by promoting education about domestic violence to judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement. I believe that if they have true knowledge of this issue then we will see less women incarcerated for merely defending their themselves.

As I embark on this journey to change our laws on self-defense, I can’t help but feel a sense of anger at the system. Historically, abuse against women was a permitted act. Women were forbidden to defend themselves against their abusive husbands. This set the social standards that we still abide by today. A woman was to take a beating as handed to her, and not to engage in any violence : it was considered “unfeminine” (Schneider, 26). I have researched this topic of self-defense, particularly for battered women for two reasons: 1) I am a battered woman who survived and 2) I am in prison surrounded by others who have survived. This affects not only me and these women, but the generations to come. Women should not be viewed as “appropriate victims” of violence. Women should have the right defend their lives when an intimate partner is threatening to take their life.

Michigan has one of the most archaic views and interpretation of the self-defense law. Self-defense is a right to that a survivor of domestic violence should have access to. More often than not, women have been terrorized by their abuser for years. These women do not kill out of malice. They kill out of necessity. Michigan stands on the “reasonable man” element of self-defense and that is unrealistic in a case of the battered woman. What exactly is “reasonable” when the man you love and share your life with repeatedly abuses you, rapes you, or threatens your life or the life of your children? If Michigan accepts that one can kill a perpetrator that breaks into your home by the justification of self-defense, then they cannot possibly criminalize a battered woman’s conduct.

I have interviewed three different women (names have been changed to protect their identity). There is a commonality among them. They have all survived and they are  doing 20 plus years in prison. These women are mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and mentors. They are kind, loving, and resilient. Each one of them had to make a choice that changed the course of their lives, the unthinkable choice of kill or be killed.

They are going to have to live with the consequences of that choice forever. The choice was survival, the effects are devastating. Can you think of any human being faced with death who is not going to defend themselves? I cannot, as I write this paper.

Meet Caroline. She has been incarcerated for 21 years. She is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing her abusive husband. Caroline was subjected to unthinkable violence at the hands of this man, whom she loved. She attempted to leave and as the story often goes, he threatened her life and her children. The police had been contacted and never offered her any assistance. Caroline was your and had endured a lifetime of trauma so she responded out of fear.

Caroline faced a jury of her peers and was convicted of 1st degree murder. The elements of Battered Women’s Syndrome was never introduced by her trial defense attorney. I asked Caroline if in that moment of the killing, did she believe that death of great bodily harm was likely to occur, she said, “yes”. She honestly believed that her life and the lives of her children were in danger. This is the first requirement of the self-defense law in Michigan. This belief is according to a reasonable person and “reasonable” is not an accurate depiction of a woman who is being terrorized. What is reasonable about a man beating you, terrorizing you, or threatening you with a gun to your head?

Meet Marie. She was convicted by a jury of 2nd degree murder for killing her abuser. She was originally charged with 1st degree murder. However, the jury found her guilty of a lesser charge due to the evidence of domestic violence. Although Battered Woman Syndrome was her defense, the judge nullified the lesser charge by sentencing her to 38-60 years. This man held a gun to her head, shot a gun into her daughters room and beat her “like she was a man”. Marie didn’t leave because she believed she could “change” him. She loved this man and we all believe in the ones we love, right? The irony is, our system only victimized her further.

According to Rocco Cipparone, Jr., author of The Defense of Battered Women Who Kill”...”a woman who has killed her batterer during an acute battering incident usually will be able to show that it was reasonable for her to believe that resort deadly force was necessary to avoid the threatened harm” (p. 435). If this statement were true then Lisa, the third woman that I interviewed would not be incarcerated for 20-30 years.

Lisa’s abuser was one who inflicted repeated harm on her. She left him and took him back more than once. The abuse cycle continued. Eventually, Lisa reached her breaking point. On one fatal evening, Lisa was attacked by her abuser. He proceeded to slam her to the floor and assault her. When he released her she grabbed a butcher knife and told him to leave. Instead of leaving he lunged at her and she stabbed him once. Lisa called 911 and administered CPR until help arrived. Subsequently, Lisa was charged with 2nd degree murder and her self-defense claim was hindered by her defense attorney and therefore not acknowledged.

Social standards determine when self-defense is viable. Unfortunately, in a case of the battered woman, she is not permitted to claim self-defense as one is in a barroom brawl. The reasonable man standard disregards the problems or the reality a woman faces in a violent relationship. The equal force and imminent danger rules have been forbidden or limited in a trial of a woman accused of killing her abuser. These rules being excluded during her trial deny her the equal protection under the law because she cannot introduce all relevant facts to a jury (Schneider, 637).

Survivors of domestic violence often take matters into their own hands because “the system” is broken and offers no assistance. Some statistics show that as many as 70 percent of domestic violence calls do not end in prosecution (bitchmedia). Seventy percent! How many women are then left to protect themselves or end up dead because their abuser was free instead of in jail where he belonged? Michigan does not hesitate to prosecute the woman for protecting themselves when the system failed to. The irony of this!

According to the current elements of Michigan’s defense laws, a battered woman who kills her sleeping husband will not be able to assert the self-defense claim. This is where Battered Woman Syndrome should be admissible in a court of law. The cycle of abuse that this woman has been subjected to for any amount of time has caused not only physical harm, but psychological as well. Killing her abuser in her mind is completely reasonable to avoid further harm or possible death. The ‘reasonable person’ standard undermines the reality of what a battered woman endures. The subjection of physical violence, intimidation, and sexual abuse are relevant and should be mitigating factors at trial. The imminence of further abuse not only exists, it is inevitable.

There is much debate in our society over domestic violence and killing an abusive partner. The debate is simple, but complex. Why doesn’t she leave? This is the favorite question of those who do not know what it is like to be in “her” shoes. The structure of our system is flawed. Instead of more women being successful at receiving the help they need to leave, or be protected, they are offered little aid or none at all (Jacobs, C. D’Orio, L.). I can list a plethora of reasons as to why she stays in the abuse. I can assert with confidence that she never stays because she likes the abuse.

Some women stay out of obligation. They are married to this monster and religious beliefs and\or morals and values keep her from leaving. No matter the reason she stays, I just want to see our society to stop being so judgmental, and blame these women no longer! Every time there is a woman on the news for killing her abuser, she is ridiculed by society for not leaving. Communities need to embrace these women and support them, not condemn them.

We must begin with public prevention of domestic violence. If abusers did not exist, then there would be no victims. How do we effectively do that? We teach our youth that respecting others is the only acceptable treatment of another human being. We teach them that violence is not the answer to conflict. If preventative measures were implemented, we may see less tragic endings. Society can no longer blame her because she stays. As a community, we must provide resources and support for leaving the abuser.  Providing assistance will enable her to leave so she does not feel that killing in self-defense is her only option.

As said in a case study by the Michigan’s Justice and Clemency Project, “If they are forced to defend themselves alone or to kill their abusers in self-defense, the response is very different… they must face the same gender-biased institutions, public officials and laws that sustain the ideologies of women’s subjugation and produce ongoing violence” (Frost). Our laws prohibit the seriousness of violence against women. Due process is denied to women because of the erroneous views of our legal system.

Michigan self-defense laws must be changed in order for battered women to receive equality in our legal system. California, within the last ten years has revised their laws and hundreds of women were released from prison because they chose to recognize the evidence of abuse. If Michigan followed suit, then women like Caroline, Marie, and Lisa would be released from prison. Removing the hurdles women face in the courts and allowing them to provide evidence of self-defense would be effective in less victims becoming incarcerated which is only a continuity of victimization for them.

In conclusion, the current self-defense law in Michigan only fails women who have survived domestic violence. There must be an understanding of what goes on in the mind of someone who has been abused. Killing her abuser is probably the most reasonable option in her mind. Therefore the ‘reasonable person’ standard is met. This standard, as currently written under the law, does not “correlate to women’s experience of abuse” (Gillespie). The primary requirement of self-defense is imminence. “In circumstances like domestic violence it is not at all an exaggeration to say that the threat of death or serious injury always imminent” (Gillespie). Women should no longer be deprived in presenting self-defense claims and evidence of abuse to substantiate those claims in the court of law.


Corrine Mackenzie, a 34-year-old from Fenton, received an associate degree in arts. Mackenzie, who has served nine years of a sentence for second-degree murder, is looking to be released in 2023. She also is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Mackenzie says she would like to open transitional housing for domestic violence victims, which she says her case involved.

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