A-M E Murder Trial

Writer Susan Stos’s articles on AM E

A-M was born 31 years ago in Carltonville, the youngest of four children. Her childhood was not a happy one, overshadowed as it was by her father’s reign of abuse – cruelty that ceased only with his accidental death when she was in her late teens. By the time she met J, a security guard five years her senior, the theme of brutality in the name of love was already well established.

A-M had expectations of life. She studied nursing, eventually becoming a trauma nursing sister. She says that the years before the birth of their daughter were not too bad – J only slapped her around a few times. But by then his control over her life was unshakable.

To train a wild elephant, one must first break its spirit। Once made to feel helpless, it loses the capacity to fight, and this enormous animal can be controlled with a small chain and peg in the ground as it no longer knows that freedom is an option. J consistently and deliberately worked on A-M s spirit throughout the years of their marriage, controlling every aspect of her existence। He dictated her dress, her friends, and kept her under constant surveillance.

He would rummage through her handbag, confiscate her cellphone, and lock her in their flat. Their sexual relationship was apparently not loving or consensual. She worked overtime, much of the time, to make ends meet as J was inconsistently employed and there were garnishee orders on her paycheck from the debts he ran up. All their assets were in his name. She was unable to drive – a childhood accident had left her with a glass eye – and was dependent on him for transport. She felt humiliated and defenseless in all aspects of her life, and saw J as omnipotent. This perception was reinforced when she tried, many times, to seek outside help. The system failed her dismally, and she was left feeling more powerless than ever. When he threatened to kill her, as he did frequently and in front of witnesses, she had no reason to doubt that he would.

Their relationship was complicated by the birth of their child in 1998. A-M had not wanted children, but vowed to protect her daughter from the kind of childhood she herself had suffered. On June 29, 2002, J subjected their 4-year-old daughter to pornography and the sight of her mother being forced to perform sexual acts. He hit the child and refused to let A-M to comfort her.

Later in the day, when J had passed out after a drinking binge, A-M cuffed his thumbs and tied a plastic bag over his head. She went into the kitchen to drink coffee while her husband died.

A-M was convicted of murder by Judge Kathy Satchwell. When sentencing was handed down the next day, she was detained “until the rising of the court” – a period of about five minutes.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Appeal decided that in specific murder cases, a long history of abuse constitutes “substantial and compelling circumstances” that would permit a court to impose a lesser sentence than the life imprisonment stipulated by law. A-M E was convicted of murdering her abusive husband, but Judge Kathy Satchwell decreed that she be detained for a few minutes only. Judge Satchwell was not condoning the act of murder, but was indicating that she understood the extenuating circumstances. The judgment was applauded nationally by women’s and civil rights groups. And perhaps with the judgment comes new thinking about abuse in general.

Leonard Carr is a clinical psychologist and was an expert witness for the defense trial of A-M E. Although his name has not been widely linked to the trial, it could well be that his testimony was responsible for the decision made by Judge Satchwell. Carr was the final witness and gave testimony led by Advocate Vetton, cross-examined by the prosecution and assessors. However, Judge Satchwell felt compelled to query Carr directly for several hours. After intense questioning she announced that she had finally come to fully understand the nature of abuse and the intricacies of the case.

Historically, there has generally been a psychological explanation for spousal abuse, and it was usually attributed to some fault of the woman. She was said to have low self-esteem – what woman with an ounce of self-respect would stay in a relationship in which she was treated so abhorrently? Maybe she grew up in an abusive household, so it was a situation that was familiar and comfortable to her. Most often, the victim was blamed.

But Carr dismisses those theories, which, he says, validates a patriarchal view that men are simply responding to the pathology of the woman. And it doesn’t happen because women are weak, he says. In fact, it’s the opposite. He sees abuse as theft – a theft of power. According to Carr, abuse is all about power – who has it, who doesn’t. A man who feels powerless has a need to obtain it from someone whom he perceives has it.

Carr says that an abuser never announces himself. A relationship will begin normally enough, but the metaphor of the frog in a pot of slowly heating water applies: the abuse is subtle initially, but over time the temperature has changed tremendously and his control becomes ingrained. An unhappy confusion between love and pain develops, creating uncertainty. An abuser may, for example, tell his victim he is beating her for her own good, to make her a better person because he loves her so much. The pain of the beating combined with the verbal assurances of love creates a dichotomy in the victim’s mind. The issues of control are masked as protection, criticism as guidance, and the lines become so blurred that the victim begins to doubt herself and her perceptions. The abuser may also become moody, unpredictable, and emotionally abusive. Just as suddenly he will change tack, full of compliments and flattery. The victim then thinks that she must have overreacted; that she didn’t read the situation correctly. In this way she begins to disown her own authority.

Another tactic an abuser often uses is to isolate his victim. We are all susceptible to the way in which others perceive us. We establish our self worth by the image reflected back to us by those nearest and dearest. When an abuser becomes the sole influence – the only mirror held up to a victim – she begins to see herself through his eyes only, and if he tells her she’s a bad person and there’s no one else to dispute it, she believes him. So when well meaning people shrug off A-M E’s situation, saying she should have left her abusive husband, they have no idea how powerless she felt; how she distrusted her instincts; how unworthy she believed herself to be.

Abuse is seldom constant. There are good moments – of love and tenderness, even. But when the good times occur the victim becomes anxious, waiting for the other shoe to drop because she knows it inevitably will. She is completely in the abuser’s control, waiting, watching his mouth, his eyes, for signs that he will strike again.

The abuser is often unaware of both his motives and methods. He unconsciously senses what his victim wants and pretends to realize it. One cannot underestimate the vulnerability of a person who is hoping to get her unfulfilled wishes and needs from childhood met, and she is only too willing to believe this person is the answer to her prayers.

In South Africa particularly, issues of abuse are especially complex. We are also plagued by a culture of patriarchy, where women are objectified and treated as possessions. Leonard Carr feels that we will never come to a solution about abuse until we solve the problems of power and patriarchy. But we cannot expect a rural woman in Kwa-Zulu Natal to fight a system herself. Rather, Carr feels, it is up to each one of us to make others aware, to join forces – in the same way that apartheid was brought down.

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