The Regilla Project*

National Census of Women Who are Incarcerated for Murdering their Abusers

The Stanford Criminal Justice Center, in partnership with award-winning writer Rachel Louise Snyder (author of No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us), is leading a three-year national research project to understand the frequency with which women in the United States are imprisoned for killing their abusers.

We assert that:

  • the number of women incarcerated under such circumstances is large, probably thousands;
  • many of these women are serving very lengthy sentences in our state prisons, thus incurring huge social and physical costs; and
  • race affects who is the most victimized.

Many of these women were not able to introduce evidence of their abuse when they were charged, convicted, sentenced, or brought to a parole board to determine eligibility for release. We hope our research could contribute to developing a fertile landscape to address these criminal justice shortcomings and may also inform laws regarding self-defense and other affirmative defenses, and strategies for addressing intimate partner violence.

In a project that will have national ramifications, the team has designed a survey to collect pertinent information from women currently serving sentences for homicide about the circumstances of their current offense(s) and relevant intimate partner violence. The survey has been developed and field tested with criminologists, gender violence experts, formerly-incarcerated survivors, and advocates for victims of intimate partner violence.

Concurrently, the team has solicited lists of women serving sentences for homicide from each state department of correction. As of December 2020, the team has received lists from half of the state departments of correction, including 8,000 of the 12,000 women incarcerated for these crimes nationally.

The team will analyze and aggregate responses from these surveys and compare the results with data obtained from the National Violent Death Reporting System database, maintained by the Center for Disease Control and never mined with this research question in mind. Complementing the results will be proactive research into court records and local press coverage to ensure data and analysis is complete.

Finally, in creating this unique, national census of women incarcerated for killing their abusers, the team is collecting and aggregating state-specific legal information about the consideration of intimate partner violence circumstances in evidentiary and self-defense laws and parole and commutation decision-making. Making this data available will shed important light on the nature of the female correctional population, the largest growing segment of the U.S. prison population.

The team’s research and results will likely guide policy discussions on charging, sentencing, prison programming, parole and reentry policies and decisions. The results may also inform laws regarding self-defense and other affirmative defenses, and strategies for addressing intimate partner violence.

* Regilla is the first known victim of intimate partner homicide. A Roman woman who was married at the age of 15 to Herodes, she was kicked down the stairs when she was eight months pregnant with her sixth child. The circumstances of her death were mysterious but have been pinned to her husband’s servicemen. Regilla’s brother charged Herodes with murder, but a Roman court (at the urging of Marcus Aurelius) acquitted him.