Emmy-award winning director Elizabeth Rohrbaugh met Carlene Borden when she was 65 years old and had already served over three decades in a Missouri prison for the murder of her husband, Delbert. The court refused to enter the years of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse she endured at Delbert's hands into evidence. It didn’t consider the time he severely beat their daughter, following her recent spinal surgery. It failed to acknowledge the fact that every time he walked into a room, their son would wet his pants in fear.
Instead, the justice system embraced the media sensationalized stereotype of Carlene as a psychotic murderer and swiftly sentenced her to 50 years in prison. Like so many survivors of domestic violence, Carlene was grossly misunderstood.
Raised by her grandparents in a small town and married to a violent husband when she was only 15, Carlene was a victim for the majority of her life—just not “the perfect victim,” an image Rohrbaugh explores in her documentary about four Missouri women facing prison sentences for their involvement in the deaths of their abusive spouses. “The ‘perfect victim’ is an impossibility,” says Rohrbaugh. “As soon as you fight back, you lose that image, and that’s not a reasonable expectation to put on women… This necessity to always project an image of innocence.”
Prior to the filming of The Perfect Victim, Rohrbaugh had very little experience with abuse survivors. But hearing one woman’s account led her to watch footage of other prisoners’ interviews. “Their stories blew me away. I couldn’t get over the extent of their abuse. These women were repeatedly beaten and raped, and their children were in constant danger. I was horrified and disgusted that men who were supposed to be fathers and partners could do this. At some point I realized there aren’t that many good actors in prison, and these were very real stories, but nobody was paying attention.”
On top of that, Rohrbaugh noticed a disturbing mishandling of the law when these women went to trial and were given sentences that were not just disproportionate to their offenses, but disparate to what men receive for similar crimes. “There is an incredible lack of understanding when it comes to domestic violence. So many people don’t understand the complexities, why women don’t ‘just leave’... They don’t think that there is any excuse for killing. There’s the age old belief that what happens behind closed doors is not our business. Many people don’t even believe in inter-marital rape.”
When it comes to the complex question of “why didn’t she leave?” the answer in Carlene’s case is that she did. At least, she tried to. Her husband was a cop in their small community, so she received little support from the police force. After Delbert’s repeated refusal of divorce, Carlene finally found the courage to move to a nearby town with her children. She even started seeing someone new, a man named Donald Pinkerton. But Delbert wouldn’t leave her alone. He tracked her down and stole the kids. He threatened violence if she wouldn’t come home, and out of fear, Carlene returned.
The details of Carlene’s involvement in the murder are hazy, but there was no evidence she shot Delbert. She takes a lot of responsibility, but maintains that it was Donald Pinkerton who pulled the trigger. “Carlene’s attorney was assigned to her, and had been a friend of her husband,” explains Rohrbaugh. “She was swiftly given a sentence of 50 years to life.” Pinkerton received only 20.
In three out of the four cases Rohrbaugh looks at in her film, the murders did not happen at the hands of the women—but all of them received significantly longer sentences than the men who actually, physically committed the crimes. The frustrating reality is that because these women fought back, they quickly crossed a very black and white line from victims to “psycho female killers.” (Which seems like an unfair transition, considering that the only “perfect victim” is the one that dies.)
But against all odds, The Perfect Victim is also a film about compassion and justice. The four women find hope when a group of vehement lawyers form the Missouri Battered Women’s Coalition and dedicate themselves to getting them their freedom. For the first time in their lives, they have advocates. “The lawyers that work with these women, to get them out of jail, to get them fairer sentences, are not funded,” says Rohrbaugh.
The unfortunate truth is that the justice system is working against them, not for them, and it takes activism to bring attention to the issue—impassioned lawyers doing the work pro-bono, and inspiring filmmakers like Rohrbaugh spreading the word.
“The media is another way of getting the story out there... it’s a way to get governors and politicians to look at these sentences,” says Rohrbaugh. “We can’t ignore it anymore—it’s a major public health issue that affects all of us, and we all need to be more proactively involved. My hope is that the film can reduce the stigma around domestic violence… make a person less afraid to go to a shelter, or more inclined to donate money to a shelter.”
If nothing else, the film will tell the story of four women who were finally seen and heard. “Carlene was a broken soul when I met her,” says Rohrbaugh. “Watching her evolution through the film is something I won't forget.”
The Perfect Victim premieres April 14th at 8:00 PM on the WORLD Channel and is produced by America ReFramed. It’s also free to view from April 15th to October 15th on www.worldchannel.org or Amazon Prime.
Image: Carlene Borden, c/o The Perfect Victim
Marissa is an NYC-based writer who loves feminism, doughnuts, and being outside. She's not a huge fan of writing personal bios, but she does love writing pretty much anything else. Read more of her work at marissadubecky.com and follow her on Instagram at @marissa_aleta.