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> Columns > Boston Globe > Cowboy law, sexism mix in wronged wife's trial

Cowboy law, sexism mix in wronged wife's trial

By Cathy Young | February 3, 2003

THE CLARA HARRIS murder trial, which is currently underway in Houston, was probably tailor-made for national publicity. The defendant, an affluent suburban mother, a high-achieving professional woman with a thriving dental practice, and a former beauty queen to boot, is accused of murdering her husband, David, by running him down with her $70,000 Mercedes Benz after catching him at a hotel with his girlfriend. The unusual part is that Harris seems to be finding a good deal of sympathy, both in the jury pool and among the public.

Harris has claimed that her husband's death was an accident, but that version of the events is rather difficult to sustain in view of evidence indicating that after striking him down, she ran over him at least twice more. (Ironically, the grisly scene was also captured on video by a private detective Harris herself had hired to spy on her husband.)

Her defense relies on the concept of ''sudden passion'' - the idea that Harris was a wronged wife who killed her husband on a moment's impulse, rather than intentionally. The prosecution is seeking a conviction of first-degree murder, which could result in a sentence of life in prison. If Harris is convicted of lesser charges, she could get as little as probation.

Four of the 12 jurors (and one of the alternates) have said during jury selection that they could ''emotionally relate'' to Harris. Such sentiments were apparently even more widespread among the potential jurors who were dismissed from the pool.

In all the discussions of this case, one rather important angle - gender - seems to have been ignored. Would the reaction have been the same if it had been David Harris who had killed his wife after catching her with another man?

Partly, this odd twist in the sordid saga is due to the fact that Texas is a unique place. ''The rule of law in Texas is kind of cowboy law,'' a spectator at the trial was quoted as saying in a news report.

Historically, this ''cowboy law'' often benefited men who killed their unfaithful wives. As recently as 1999, a Texas jury gave probation to one Jimmy Dean Watkins, convicted of murder for gunning down his estranged wife (though this bizarre outcome was apparently due to one juror's fanatical stubbornness and the fatigue of the rest).

But support for Harris has extended beyond her home state. A discussion of the case on the Fox News Channel show ''The O'Reilly Factor'' prompted a strong response, mostly from female viewers.

''I hope Clara beats the rap!'' wrote a Tennessee woman. ''I think it is high time that people who fool around on their spouses should pay for the damage they cause.'' A Kentucky woman added this charming bit of humor: ''About the Harris case where the woman ran over her husband several times - I admire her restraint.'' Similar comments about a man who had killed his wife would have occasioned cries of sexism.

One may also wonder if a male counterpart of Harris would have been allowed to retain custody of his children, as she has. Some have even argued that she should avoid jail so that she can raise her two young boys.

When Watkins received probation for killing his wife, the light sentence was met with public outrage, in Texas and nationwide. Women's advocates spoke passionately, and rightly, about the terrible message that domestic violence - even deadly violence - is justified if one has been ''provoked.'' Harris has not yet been convicted or sentenced, so it's hard to tell what the reaction to the outcome will be. But so far, at least, reports of sympathy for the wronged wife have generated no expressions of concern and no irate commentary about blaming the victim or condoning violence against men.

A certain measure of sympathy for people who commit crimes of passion is understandable. Many feminists have attributed this sympathy to the underlying belief that men ''own'' women; but they are wrong. Most of us can relate to feelings of anger, loss and betrayal caused by infidelity or rejection - in a way we cannot relate to the cold-blooded motives of someone who kills for greed. But we should never allow this emotional understanding to overshadow the horror of what happened to the victims.

To the extent that gender is a factor in judging crimes of passion, the pendulum today seems to have swung in favor of women. This is something that true feminists should condemn. If the slogan ''There is no excuse for domestic violence'' is to have any meaning, it must apply to both sexes.

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