TEXT ON SCREEN: Since the late 1970s, the number of women in prison has grown by nearly eight hundred per cent, twice the rate of men.
A majority of them have been victims of domestic violence in the past.
JAMES HUGHES: My dad was really punching her that night. Really bloodied her up bad that night. And my mom decided she’d had enough. She put us in the car, went back in the house. Came back out in a rush, crying, all us kids are screaming, and I remember looking back, just like this, and seeing flames through the trees. And that’s how it began.
TEXT ON SCREEN: 1977
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1977):
ANCHOR: Francine Hughes burst into the guard house at the sheriff’s office shouting, “I did it! I did it!” What she’d done was killed her husband.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 11-4-77):
NEWS REPORT: She poured gasoline under his bed and lit it and he burned to death.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 11-10-77):
NEWS REPORT: No other trial that originated in the state of Michigan has received such widespread national attention as the Francine Hughes murder trial.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-2-77):
BARBARA WALTERS: She was driven to kill her husband by constant beatings during the 13 years they lived together.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1977):
PETER HOUK (INGHAM COUNTY PROSECUTOR): I refuse to accept in my community the taking of the law into one’s own hands, and extracting the penalty of death.
THE BURNING BED
LEE ATKINSON (ASSISTANT PROSECUTING ATTORNEY, THE FRANCINE HUGHES CASE): I was the head of the criminal division in the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office. We were briefed on the fact that Francine Hughes had showed up at the sheriff’s office about eight thirty the night before and had told the deputies there that she set her husband on fire. Francine Hughes did not stab her husband or kill her husband while he was in the process of abusing her. He was sound asleep in a drunken stupor. And we decided at that time to charge her with first-degree murder. It was a big case in Lansing. It got picked up by the wire services. It got national attention.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-2-77):
SYLVIA CHASE: The disturbing question about the woman on the right is “Why?” Why did Francine Hughes kill her husband? Ignite his bedroom as he lay sleeping…
ARJEN GREYDAUS (DEFENSE ATTORNEY, THE FRANCINE HUGHES CASE): From a defense lawyer’s point of view, it looked like a loser from the beginning. But this was going to be my first big case on my own. And so, I took it. The first meeting was at the Ingham County jail in a small room. And, um, I was immediately, you know how you get a sense about people? Francine was just someone who, when you met her, you thought, oh, this is a nice person.
JAMES HUGHES: It was me, my mother, and my father, and my little brother and my two sisters and she loved us kids. She just would do anything for us, and there were times – you know, my dad was spending all his money on drink when we didn’t have food. And I remember a time when my mother would pop popcorn and mix grape jelly into water for us to drink, so that we weren’t starving. It was roughly about six years that we lived in Dansville. It was just so quiet and such a nice little town back then. And, of course, a lot of stuff went on behind closed doors. She was scared a lot of my dad. I know that. She lived in constant fear, little things would set him off. She might say a word and just the inflection of the way she said it may set him off, start making him mad. It was just across the face or in the face with his fist. He had her in a–one of our living room chairs, had her pinned down in the chair beating on her. I mean, from the back view–which I was the only one that seen this– you could see his arms just swinging and just hear him hitting her.
ARJEN GREYDANUS: Police were called all the time. And unless they saw Mickey actually striking Francine, which was highly unlikely, they would leave. And that happened many, many, many times.
LEE ATKINSON: In 1977, police didn’t arrest you for a misdemeanor unless they saw it committed. Does she have bruises? Yes. Does she look like she’s been abused? Yes. The police will take a report but they wouldn’t make an arrest. On one or two occasions my recollection is he did get arrested, but it was for the fact that he got belligerent with the officers.
JAMES HUGHES: He would just come home even, even madder. And a lot of times my mom would get beat again. She did try to get away, but he would also tell her, “There’s nowhere you can go, bitch, that I won’t find you.” Most of the time he treated her just as, as something that he owned. She was his possession, he didn’t allow her even friends. The times she did try to go to college and tried to commute back and forth from there, he eventually got tired of that. Made her burn her school books in the burning barrel in our yard and then it escalated. And so he ended up getting up and abusing her, and that was quite a bad, severe case of abuse that night.
ARCHIVAL (WKYC, 9-1-78):
FRANCINE HUGHES: He was smashing food in the kitchen, dumping out the garbage, rubbing it into my hair, hitting me. I remember how I felt sitting there. And it was just—I don’t know if I can describe it to you, but it the most alone feeling in the whole world. I could hear the kids crying and hollering, “Mommy, are you all right?”
ARJEN GREYDANUS: The police were there, and they saw that she was severely beaten up. And they didn’t do anything. And then he said right in front of the police officers, he said, “I am going to kill you when they leave.” Everything that had happened to her for years and years and years and years needs to be seen as an accumulation and when you talk about a threat to a woman it’s that entire history that is the threat. To her, there really was no other way.
ARCHIVAL (WKYC, 9-1-78):
FRANCINE HUGHES: And I thought, “I’m never coming back. Never.” And then—and then I thought, “Because there won’t be anything to come back to.” And that’s when I—that’s when I decided I would burn everything, there wouldn’t be anything to come back to.
LEE ATKINSON: There was a lot of sympathy even in law enforcement for her situation. And there was frustration that we didn’t have a system that knew how to deal with it properly. It was at a time when the Women’s Movement had gained traction in the country. Women’s issues had gained traction. Her case became a cause very quickly.
NEWS REPORT: The story of Francine Hughes made its way around feminist circles, and, within a few weeks it gave rise to a movement.
WOMAN: What we’re concerned with is not merely the freedom of Francine Hughes but the freedom of all women in our society.
ANN JONES (AUTHOR, WOMEN WHO KILL): Women had been taught to keep that secret. You couldn’t tell anybody or you’d get beaten up worse. So women had been silent about it. Now they took to the streets.
ARCHIVAL (TRANSITION HOUSE, 1976):
PAT UPSHAW: My names is Pat Upshaw, I was a battered wife, stayed at transition housing in Cambridge.
ANN JONES: The country was full of women who had been waiting for the chance to say something.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1970):
SYLVIA CHASE: More women are admitting that they too have been battered and don’t know what to do about it. Police won’t make arrests. Prosecutors won’t prosecute because traditionally wife beating has been considered a family affair.
ARJEN GREYDANUS: All of a sudden, Sylvia Chase was in town. And all of a sudden, NBC was in town. And then, all the networks were in town. And Walter Cronkite was having it on his show.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1970):
SYLVIA CHASE: The case of Francine Hughes is still a legal longshot. Even if a judge and jury can be convinced that…
LEE ATKINSON: There was no question that the system had failed her. But in our system, the excuse for system failures is not to commit first degree murder. She could have taken what little she had. She could have taken the kids. And she could have disappeared. I think the evidence is that she needed to punish him before she left. And that’s why she set him on fire. Now, the other thing we learned just before the trial is that it turned out, Francine Hughes, while taking business courses at the local business college, had a relationship. And she would send love letters, which suggested that she had a different motivation
ARJEN GREYDANUS: She only met him once or twice and he was nice to her. Francine felt like somebody was caring about her for the first time in a long time. It actually made the jury more empathetic. And it actually made her understand more how lonely and how desperate her situation was. I did not think that I could convince the jury necessarily that she was not guilty because she was defending herself straight out. So, I used the temporary insanity hook. She did tell me she knew what she was doing, but she couldn’t stop herself from doing it. She heard this voice in her mind, ‘Do it. Do it. Do it.’ I don’t know whether the jury believed that or not. But I was sure that they were very sympathetic to her situation, that they wanted to set her free.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-4-77):
NEWS REPORT: Last night the jury accepted her temporary insanity plea and found her not guilty for that reason.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1970):
NEWS REPORT: Her case she hopes will draw attention to the abuse of women.
REPORTER: And how does it feel to be free?
FRANCINE HUGHES: It’s on my face.
ARJEN GREYDANUS: And then, of course, what followed was doing shows on TV. Radio shows. And then, of course, the book and then the movie.
ARCHIVAL (EXCERPT FROM THE BURNING BED, NBC, 1984):
TEXT ON SCREEN: Seventy-five million people watched The Burning Bed when it aired, in 1984.
ARJEN GREYDANUS: I don’t think anything like that had been shown. It’s really hard to watch. It was this case that raised the consciousness of the community. And, by the end of 1978, Michigan had laws dealing with it.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-2-86):
TOM BROKAW: Until very recently the problem of battered wives got very little attention from police.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-14-84):
MEREDITH VIEIRA: Now the courts, like the cops, are beginning to show unprecedented sympathy for battered women.
MALE: Did he ever punch you in the stomach when you were pregnant?
LEE ATKINSON: It led to legislators getting interested. It led to law enforcement agencies wanting to find better tools. Nobody wanted to have another Francine Hughes case.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Cleveland, Ohio
RICHARD BOMBIK: I was the lead prosecutor in the State of Ohio v. Thomia Hunter. Ms. Hunter’s boyfriend, Andrew Harris, had nine stab wounds and he bled to death. A patrol officer arrived at the scene, a homicide detective arrived at the scene, and two paramedics arrived at the scene. And pretty much the only thing out of her mouth at that time was ‘we got into an argument and I stabbed him.’ It was pretty much of a clear case of murder.
THOMIA HUNTER: I definitely did not wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to kill somebody.’ Andrew was just a loving and caring person, you know. He was nurturing, you know. Protective. The physical violence started about three months into the relationship after moving in together. He would hit me. He kicked me in the stomach. And he choked me more times than I really can remember because that was his tactic so no one would really hear what he was doing. The majority of them were when he was drinking or when we were drinking together. I would forgive him. And he said he wouldn’t do it again. And then it would happen again. And then I would forgive again. So I just didn’t want to be that person, or believe that I was truly in an abusive relationship. I never reported anything. It was an embarrassment for me to say that I was being abused.
That night Andrew was strangling me until I had passed out almost. He picked me up by my throat and had me off the ground by my, off my feet choking me. When he lifted me up, I did grab the knife off the counter. After I could not get his hands off my throat or kicking didn’t make him stop, I used the knife. He went to the front door. And he grabbed the front door as if he was leaving. But he grabbed his chest and he fell. I called 9-1-1, told them where I was, what happened. And then the police told me I was under arrest because Andrew had passed away. Because I had told the truth, I assumed that the law was on my side because it was my home and I was defending myself.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Hunter was sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison.
Very little was said at her trial about her allegations of past abuse.
TIFFANNY SMITH (ATTORNEY, OHIO JUSTICE AND POLICY CENTER): I currently represent about 10 women who are incarcerated survivors of domestic violence. Some of these women have been in for 20, 25, 30 years or more. Some of these women are in their 60s and 70s. The Francine Hughes case was eye opening for a lot of people. But I think it was also an anomaly, because she was acquitted and in my experience, that does not happen very often. What needs to be understood is this history of all the abuse that’s happened in the past. All the threats that have happened in the past.
RICHARD BOMBIK: All this stuff about being a battered woman came much later, following her conviction. We didn’t hear anything like this at her trial. And I think we live in a society, in a world where there are avenues if you need help, there’s help. She left him one time in her life. She did not have to resume that relationship with him the second time around.
TIFFANNY SMITH: The big question remains in people’s minds who have not been through this or do not understand this, “Why didn’t you just leave?” A woman doesn’t go on a first date, get punched in the face and stay with this person. What happens is very calculating, very slow, you’re humiliated, you’re threatened, you have been told, over and over and over again, you’re worthless. And it builds and builds and builds and you are more likely to be killed immediately upon leaving as any other time.
TEXT ON SCREEN: The Ohio parole board recommended clemency in part because Hunter’s claims of abuse weren’t raised at trial.
ARCHIVAL (WPCO LOCAL, 1-11-19):
REPORTER: Governor Johhn Kasich recently granted clemency to a Cleveland woman who killed her abusive boyfriend.
ARCHIVAL (LOCAL 12 NEWS CLEVELAND, 1-15-19):
REPORTER: The Ohio Parole Board recommended the Cleveland woman’s sentence be commuted after finding her abuse never came up at trial.
THOMIA HUNTER: There were over 22 women that applied for this clemency project and I was the sole person that received it. There are so many women, that are in prison that deserve to be out more than me and as much as me.
TEXT ON SCREEN: She was released in 2019, after 15 years in prison.
THOMIA HUNTER: I definitely felt like I deserved to go to prison. I definitely take full responsibility for my actions. The only thing that I do know that if I didn’t defend myself that night, it would have been me, not him.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Since the seventies, domestic-violence shelters and stronger law-enforcement policies on abuse have spread around the country.
The number of men killed by a romantic partner has dropped by more than fifty per cent.
But the number of women killed by a partner has declined far less dramatically.
Three women are killed in the U.S. by a partner every day.