John Bobbitt acquitted in case that is a bizarre symbol of '90s sexual tensions

November 11, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

MANASSAS, Va. -- Whether it provokes people to laugh, fume or cringe, "The Case of the Severed Penis" already is much more than the story of one relationship gone awry. It has become a bizarre symbol of sexual tensions in the 1990s.

The fight between John Wayne Bobbitt, 26, and his estranged wife, Lorena Bobbitt, 24, reverberates with ultimate sexual fears and revenge fantasies.

Today, few television viewers or newspaper readers in the United States or elsewhere will be unaware that a jury of nine women and three men acquitted John Bobbitt of marital sexual assault -- the equivalent of rape. (In Virginia, the charge of marital rape can be used only if the couple is living apart or if the victim is injured.)

Yesterday's verdict, after only two days of testimony and four hours of deliberations, may prompt Lorena Bobbitt to plea-bargain rather than face a jury at her own trial in three weeks. She is charged with malicious wounding by slicing off her husband's sex organ.

But the case provoked a broader debate about abused women and emasculated men.

To some, the case became a call for redress of past and continued injustice against women. Cutting off the penis of an abusive man was considered rough justice.

To others, John Bobbitt was the archetypal white male, victimized by political correctness. His expected conviction was seen as proof that American men have no standing, legal or otherwise. His acquittal should weaken that premise, at least for the moment.

In the he said/she said arguments of the courtroom, the jury gave his story the benefit of the doubt. Throughout the trial, the prosecution claimed Lorena Bobbitt was an abused wife who reacted violently after being subjected to continued assaults, including being raped in the early morning hours of June 23, just before she attacked him.

"She cut it off because she had had it with sexual abuse," claimed Mary Grace O'Brien, assistant state prosecutor.

But John Bobbitt's defense team argued that the marital rape charge was a fabrication to help justify the wife's later action.

"She wanted to strike out in some way against her husband, who was leaving her," defense attorney Gregory Murphy told the jury in his summation. Both Bobbitts acknowledged they were planning a divorce.

Each side accused the other of trying to capitalize on the case, hiring entertainment lawyers and considering movie options. He is suspected of withholding his story to sell to the highest bidder. She has already been on the ABC-TV program "20/20" and was featured in a flattering article in Vanity Fair magazine.

Though the prosecution insisted that only the events of their last four days together were on trial, prosecutor Paul Ebert talked about modern times and recently enacted laws concerning sexual consent, even in marriage.

"A woman has a right to say no. That's what this case is all about," he said.

"She struck out at the very thing that had wounded her, the thing that had hurt her, and she severed it," the prosecutor argued.

Though Mr. Ebert himself intends to prosecute Lorena Bobbitt in three weeks, he seemed to argue her defense yesterday when in his summation he rhetorically asked the jury, "Why did she cut his penis off?

"Something happened -- and common sense tells you that something sexual happened that offended her, that drove her over the edge," he said. "If it was some other motive, she would have cut his throat."

But the defense called it the concoction of a desperate woman.

"I lifted the sheets and I cut it," Lorena Bobbitt testified in a slight, almost inaudible voice.

Later, she said, she ran out with the 8-inch kitchen knife in one hand and the penis in the other and threw the member away at an intersection. Police retrieved it and took it to the hospital, where the penis was reattached after 9 1/2 hours of surgery. But doctors are unsure how much of its use Mr. Bobbitt will recover.

"I'm relieved this is all over," John Bobbitt said after the trial. "I'm glad the jury believed me. I just want to get on with my life. I've got a lot of healing to do."

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