From Moonlight Cruises to Clemency

 David Hanson

By Susan M. Carini

“Although moonlight cruises, flirtations, and the first kiss are all part of the American way of dating, unfortunately so are hitting, beating, and abuse.”


—Richard Gelles, dean, University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice

Editor’s note: David Hanson 05MBA is Emory's associate vice president of administration and special assistant to Executive Vice President Mike Mandl.

On December 12, 1991, Governor Richard Celeste of Ohio granted clemency to 25 women who were serving prison sentences for either killing or assaulting their husbands or lovers. The 24-year-old David Hanson, then a lawyer working at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), sat up and took notice. Hanson’s work at the DOD was primarily related to the environment and real estate, but he also was an EEO counselor dealing with gender, disability, and marital discrimination. Celeste’s decision was groundbreaking, for it was the first mass release in the U.S. of battered women who had been prosecuted for doing violence to their abusers. Women’s rights groups cheered; judges and prosecutors registered their disagreement.

Hanson, an impassioned supporter of women, was intrigued by Celeste’s move, but opposed the principle on which he made it—clemency—and was discomfited by the less-publicized “other side” to Celeste’s seemingly pro-woman act. These same women Celeste let out of prison were required, for instance, to perform 200 hours of community service; moreover, the governor refused to wipe their records clean.

Hanson comes by his admiration of women in a variety of ways, one of which was being raised by his three sisters after his mother died when he was seven. One sister, who now works with families and children, weathered a difficult marriage until divorcing her abusive husband. In college, where he was a big brother to a sorority, Hanson reacted with personal concern and public activism when female friends experienced sexual or intimate partner abuse. He also facilitated date-rape training at the regional and national level for his fraternity. While in law school, Hanson took a domestic relations course in which the class examined the sociological underpinnings of abuse of women. A partial requirement of the course was writing the article that became “Battered Women: Society’s Obligation to the Abused,” which Hanson published in the Akron Law Review in 1993–1994.

sad historyThe article brims with more passion than one would expect to see in a law journal article; and the credit for that, Hanson says, lies less with him than with the passion for this issue that existed in the public square at that moment. For Hanson, the crime in this case was that those 25 women had served prison terms in the first place. Had they had the benefit of Battered Woman Syndrome as a defense, they might not have been convicted. To this day, this defense has not been granted certiorari (that is, a hearing) by the nation’s highest court.

The sad history for most women in the court system for assaulting or killing their batterers is that they have an ineffective choice between self-defense and the insanity defense. Few women qualify on either ground. Self-defense can be problematic because battered women sometimes lash out after years of repeated abuse, but not always when faced with an imminent threat to their or their children’s lives. As Hanson notes, “Battered women are neither masochistic nor crazy. Unfortunately, like the Vietnam veteran, battered women are forced to take on survival characteristics,” one of which, occasionally, is to return force with force—an eye for an eye.

Battered Woman Syndrome has not been without its vigorous detractors over the years. Joe Wheeler Dixon writes in 2002, “Although so elastic that it can be shaped to fit any legal case, the syndrome per se has caused certain unintended consequences. . . . Originally proposed as a theory entirely sympathetic to feminist ideals, the syndrome now reinforces some of the most archaic and destructive stereotypes historically attached to women” (

Hanson, who was the only white ad hoc member of the Black Student Law Association (BSLA) at his law school and who served as torts tutor of the BSLA, is not afraid to go against the grain. For him, Battered Woman Syndrome still has relevance as a defense. He points out that the business model of the sex trade—a global social problem—reinforces that Battered Woman Syndrome does exist. For instance, many young women who become prisoners of the sex trade develop physical and emotional ties to their captors. Even though their environments are horrible by any normal standard, they adapt because to do so is tantamount to survival.

A recent example is Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted at age 11 and locked up by her rapist-captor. She was discovered living in a suburban neighborhood with him, his wife, and his mother, and raising two children that he fathered. Although Dugard may have had the opportunity to escape between her capture in 1991 and her rescue by California authorities in 2009, she did not do so because she remained emotionally and mentally tied to her captor.

Hanson muses about how the syndrome might be received if it were “Battered Partner Syndrome.” “Because it is not that,” he says, “because it openly uses the word woman, society automatically attaches 200 years’ worth of discrimination to it.” Hanson, who is gay, acknowledges that his own status makes him more empathetic to what women suffer at the hands of their batterers. Yet Hanson is, in his own words, a “hidden minority” when he chooses to be and thus able to avoid criticism or outright abuse. Not so the battered woman, who often cannot claim even the comfort of closure, who may divorce the batterer only to be stalked and harmed long after the relationship has ended. As Hanson writes, “The actual prison in which she lives has no boundaries, but rather surrounds her continuously.”

Hanson concludes his piece in the Akron Law Review, “Granting full recognition to the Battered Woman Syndrome will neither be granting a license to kill, nor encouraging murder. What it will do is force our nation to realize that abuse is real, it touches us all, and that we must invent adequate support systems to assist its victims.”

The abuse is real and does touch us all, as Sasha Smith’s article heartbreakingly renders. Yet 15 years after the release of Hanson’s article, those “adequate support systems” are at least starting to see the light of day, at Emory and elsewhere, as some of the other articles in this issue indicate. Things must be looking up if the sharp-tongued young lawyer now can turn his attention to advocacy for the environment and animals, though without taking his eye fully off the humans who live alongside them.

Susan M. Carini is the executive director of Emory Creative Group, a member of the Center for Women Editorial Board and Advisory Council, and a member of Emory’s Intimate Partner Violence Working Group.