Donna Stephen

'Five minutes for murder'

2005-02-25 08:19
<b>Anne-Marie Engelbrecht leaves the supreme court in Johannesburg, a free woman after being charged for the murder of her husband. (Siddique Davids, Beeld)</b>

Anne-Marie Engelbrecht leaves the supreme court in Johannesburg, a free woman after being charged for the murder of her husband. (Siddique Davids, Beeld)

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Late last week a two-year court saga ended that perhaps didn't have as massive a media impact as the Shaik trial, but that will have far more of a civil impact.

Anne-Marie Engelbrecht was given a five-minute sentence for murder. It's shocking to hear that anyone can be given what amounts to virtual absolution for killing another human being, but when people hear the circumstances under which she has lived her last ten years, many say it's understandable.

Like when Loretta Bobbit lopped off her husband's penis because he was a brute, people seem to understand that years of abuse can exact severe retribution.

Judge Satchwell, ordered in passing sentence that Engelbrecht "be detained until the rising of the court for tea". This case, Husband killer gets 5 minutes was judged on its unique circumstances, so its difficult to criticize the sentence.

I have one problem with the sentence in the Engelbrecht case, and with this attitude.

When killing is okay

We think it's acceptable that there are circumstances under which killing is okay.

In other words, many people would believe that this sentence is just.

Now most people would tell you that the law has little to do with justice, but the idea of law and its application, in as fair a way as possible, is the closest we will ever reach to that optimistic ideal: justice.

But in this case, what is justice? I'm certain that in many ways the law has not been followed - the mandatory sentence for murder in this country is a life sentence. Engelbrecht changed her plea during the course of the trial from guilty to not guilty on grounds of not being criminally liable for her actions.

The extenuating circumstances in this case included that her husband's violent and kinky sexual behaviour caused her high stress levels.

So maybe the law hasn't been served, but has justice been done? There are two main issues here:

The first one is the fact that someone can get sentenced to five minutes for killing another human being. I can't help thinking that if she wasn't a female she'd have fared a good bit worse.

On the other hand, one can't separate the fact that she is a woman from this entire scenario, so in many ways that's a dead-end argument.

The other one is in a broader context of the status of women here and everywhere else, but specifically in South Africa. In South Africa a woman is killed every six days by her intimate male partner and one in four women is in an abusive relationship.

Domestic abuse

Domestic abuse and wife battery is a mammoth problem in this country.

The legal infrastructure isn't supportive enough of women in abusive relationships.

The concept of rape being able to occur within marriage was only criminalized in 1993 and The Domestic Violence Act of 1998 first recognised that spouse abuse and domestic violence was a crime and not a private issue.

There are far too many cases like this in the news, where women feel there is no way out but to kill their abusers. The "battered wife" syndrome, especially when provoked by the kind of obsessive abuser who will pursue the woman wherever she hides, leaves these women feeling as if they haven't any other choice.

I used the expression "far too many" because something has to be done to give these women greater legal options than to resort to a vigilante solution.

Because as much as every fibre of my moral being balks at the knowledge that someone got a five-minute sentence for murdering a man; on some level I know that justice is supposed to be merciful, our constitution upholds dignity and compassion, and the abuse that a woman endured for years had to end completely and she saw only one way to accomplish this.

  • Donna Stephen, editor of Women24.com, hopes that issues of domestic violence get the urgent attention they deserve so that women don't have to take the law into their own hands.

    Send your comments to Donna or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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