Abused by husband, then by sentencing law

May 23, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - A few words on behalf of Dixie Shanahan.

Granted, some might consider her a less-than-sympathetic figure. After all, two years ago, Mrs. Shanahan, a 36-year-old from Defiance, Iowa, killed her husband with a shotgun blast to the head. She left his body decomposing on the bed for a year.

But there is, as you might expect, more to the story.

Mrs. Shanahan, backed up by friends, police reports and photographs of her own blackened eyes, testified that her husband, Scott, beat her repeatedly for years. She said he threw her down stairs, slammed her into walls, chained her in the basement for days at a time, shoved her face in the toilet and once hit her over the head with a plate because his mashed potatoes were runny.

The day she killed him was especially awful. He had been beating her for three days, she said, angry that she was pregnant with their third child. She says her husband had demanded that she get an abortion. When she refused, he vowed to beat the baby out of her, hammering her repeatedly in the stomach.

Mrs. Shanahan fled the house. Her husband knocked her down and dragged her back inside by her hair. Mrs. Shanahan says he pointed a shotgun and said, "This day is not over yet. I will kill you." Then he unplugged the telephones and took them into the bedroom.

What happened next is in dispute. Mrs. Shanahan says she went into the room to call police. She says Mr. Shanahan made a threatening move and she grabbed the shotgun. Prosecutors say he was actually asleep when his wife shot him in the back of the head.

They offered a plea bargain that would have freed her in as little as four years. Mrs. Shanahan turned it down, gambling that she could avoid a conviction. She could not. On May 10, she was sentenced to 50 years in prison. The sentence was nonnegotiable under Iowa's mandatory sentencing laws. It'll be 35 years before she's eligible for parole.

Many observers are horrified. As one put it, the sentence "may be legal, but it is wrong." This was Charles Smith, the judge in the case. The sentence, said Mrs. Shanahan's attorney, was like one last beating.

Could she have found a legal way to escape her husband? Yes. But the judgment of battered people is often unsound.

Should she have taken the plea bargain? Definitely. But you know what they say about the accuracy of hindsight.

The point is, even if you accept the prosecution's theory of the crime, this sentence is not justice. Not even close.

But then, justice has become a rarer commodity since the "get tough on crime" movement swept the nation during the Reagan years. Declaring the courts too soft on crime, state legislators around the country decided that judgment was too important to be left to judges. They enacted mandatory-sentencing guidelines that were supposed to produce tougher and more uniform sentences.

Instead, those guidelines produce travesties. Consider the Connecticut college student who was peripherally involved in her boyfriend's drug ring - never sold drugs, never used them, had never been in trouble before.

Twenty-five years.

Then there's the Iowa man who kicked a door in.

Another 25 years.

And let us not forget the California man who stole a slice of pepperoni pizza.

Twenty-five to life.

Like the "zero tolerance" school policies they resemble, mandatory-sentencing guidelines leave no room for compassion or common sense. And you have to wonder how many more of these tragic absurdities it will take before legislators concede the obvious: These are awful laws.

While we await that attack of courage, Dixie Shanahan is filing her appeal and beginning her sentence. Anyone who thinks that's justice doesn't know the meaning of the word.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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