The Punishment of Dixie Shanahan: Is There Justice for Battered Women Who Kill?


The article explores the prevailing theories justifying criminal punishment in the United States through the lens of the case of Dixie Shanahan, an Iowa woman who was sentenced to fifty years imprisonment for killing her abusive spouse after nineteen years of battering. The article begins with a detailed examination of the life of Dixie Shanahan and places her within the context of the literature on battered women who kill. The piece then looks at both retributivist and utilitarian justifications for punishment and concludes that only a retributivist rationale justifies the punishment of Ms. Shanahan and other battered women who kill, and only to the extent that these women receive their just deserts, punishment tailored to the individual offender and crime. Because the fifty year sentence Ms. Shanahan received did not reflect her individual circumstances or the context of her crime, her punishment was not just. The article then asks why battered women who kill do not receive just deserts, and offers three theories: mandatory minimum sentences, judicial unwillingness to consider domestic violence in sentencing determinations, and community fears about widespread partner homicides if battered women who kill receive anything less than the maximum sentence.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Family Law | Jurisprudence | Law and Gender

Date of this Version

March 2006