Same old math

October 25, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

WARNING TO American women: The moment you say "I do," the value of your life on the open judicial market plummets.

That's one conclusion you can draw from the sentencing this week of Kenneth Peacock, who killed his wife after he found her in bed with another man.

The Maryland truck driver got a mere 18 months for shooting the 31-year-old woman with a hunting rifle in a classic Drove-Me-to-It defense.

Assessing Sandra Peacock like a flawed commodity, which is what both her husband and the judge did, she was worth about two and a half weeks' time for each year of her life.

Her infidelity counted as contributory negligence. Lest you imagine Kenneth Peacock entering the marital home and losing his head -- bang! bang! bang! -- at the sight of his wife and another man in flagrante, be advised that his heat of passion survived several hours of argument and a whole lot of hard drinking before he blew Sandra away.

"I seriously wonder how many men married five, four years would have the strength to walk away without inflicting some corporal punishment," the judge, Robert Cahill, said sympathetically.

To appreciate how truly stupid that remark is as a sentencing guideline, you need only reconfigure it thus in the case, say, of a man accused of having stolen money from a patron at a cash machine:

"I seriously wonder how many men earning the minimum wage would have the strength to walk away from a handful of crisp new bills."

The worth of a woman's life is still oddly dependent on the luster of her sexual reputation. Witness the defense in the Robert Chambers murder trial, in which the dating patterns of Jennifer Levin sometimes seemed more key to the case than her death.

When a so-called friend of Nicole Simpson's named Faye Resnick published a memoir last week of sex and drugs and breast enhancement, Robert Shapiro complained that his client could not get a fair trial.

Judge Lance Ito ordered potential jurors not to read the book or even visit bookstores, perhaps believing that Ms. Resnick's contention that O.J. Simpson had threatened to kill his ex-wife if he ever found her with another man could be prejudicial.

But what about the rights of the nearly decapitated Nicole, who, instead of hot-and-cold-running lawyers like the well-heeled O.J., sometimes seems to have no one but her family to defend her?

If Judge Cahill's attitude toward Mr. Peacock reflects some widespread view of the world, the jury pool may already be polluted through publicity by some creeping sense that Nicole had a little more fun than a mother of two should, that she was too much spandex and too little apron.

The defense worries that jurors will have a lingering sense that O.J. was violent and threatened his wife; what of the danger that Nicole's life has been devalued by party-girl pictures and amorous adventure stories?

There are no hard statistics, but certain anecdotal evidence and some studies on murder sentences suggest that men accused of killing their wives don't have to worry about spending as much time in jail as their female counterparts, even those who retaliate after years of abuse.

Michael Dowd, director of the Pace University Battered Women's Justice Center, says that across the board women are sentenced more harshly than men.

That point was made in Maryland this week, too. The day after Judge Cahill handed down a sentence half as long as prosecutors had requested in the Peacock case, another judge handed down a sentence three times as long as prosecutors thought she deserved to a woman who said she killed her husband after more than a decade of abuse.

Patricia Hawkins said that at the end of a day in which her husband beat her yet again and threatened to kill her and hurt her son, she doused him with lighter fluid and set him afire. She was given twice as much jail time as Mr. Peacock.

All these numbers reinforce a peculiar kind of old math. Jail sentences have many functions, but one is surely to send a message about what our society abhors and what it values. This week, the equation was two fold: female infidelity twice as bad as male abuse, the life of a woman half as valuable as that of a man. The killing of the woman taken in adultery has a long history and survives today in many cultures. One of those cultures is our own.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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