In Grand Rapids last week, there was talk of renaming the district courthouse. Some people in the Michigan city hope to dub it the Carol S. Irons Hall of Justice.
They want to turn this public place into a site for her honor and their anger. After all, this is where Carol S. Irons became the first female judge in Kent County in 1982. This is where she married Clarence Ratliff, a police officer, out on the lawn in 1984. And this is where she was shot to death, in her chambers, by her estranged husband, in 1988.
Here too, the judge used to invite kids in for a talk, because she said, "I think schoolgirls ought to have professional women as role models." Now, dead at 40, she has become a very different sort of female role model: a victim. She has become Anywoman who ever "provoked" a man into murder.
The marriage between Judge Irons and Officer Ratliff sounds like a chapter out of "Smart Women, Foolish Choices." A second marriage for both of them, it didn't last long and was followed by a rancorous separation.
But that all ended on Oct. 20, 1988, when Ratliff finished a 10-hour police shift, hit a few bars, went to the courthouse and shot Irons dead. After a gun battle with the police, he said, "I just couldn't take the bitch anymore."
The man was predictably accused of first-degree murder. But on May 11, he was convicted of a much lesser crime: voluntary manslaughter. He faces a stiffer sentence for shooting and missing the police than for shooting and killing his wife.
The jurors decided that Ratcliff was under too much alcohol and "stress" to intend murder. More to the point, as one juror said, "Everybody felt he was provoked by his wife to do this. First of all, she went out with other men. Then he was having trouble sexually and I imagine she rubbed that in to him. Then he went to his lawyer's office and found out she wouldn't agree to the settlement. All of that provoked him into doing it."
An outraged friend of the judge, Noralee Carrier Potts, calls this "the-bitch-deserved-it defense." But, to be as frank as Carol Irons would have been, there is nothing unusual about this case. Indeed, if the victim had not been a judge, the case might have passed unnoticed.
The notion that men snap into viciousness under "stress," the notion that women provoke their own abuse, even murder, is just that ingrained. Indeed as often as not, the justice system hands out excuses with sentences.
In Illinois, in 1984, James Lutgen strangled his wife in front of their children "because" she refused to go Christmas shopping. It was only hours after she had filed for divorce and obtained a court order of protection.
After serving 20 months in jail, Lutgen came out, sued for and won custody of the kids. An appellate court agreed in January that he was a "fit and proper person" to have care of minors.
According to the national figures, 1,500 women were murdered by their husband or boyfriend in 1986. That's nearly three a day. Another study says that these men serve an average of two to six years. In rape cases it's easier to get a conviction against a stranger than an acquaintance. You can be more certain she didn't "ask for it." This seems true for murder as well.
Last week in Grand Rapids, the men in Ratliff's motorcycle club, the Dillywackers, were saying to reporters, "If there were 10,000 Clarence Ratliffs, all the communists would dig holes and bury themselves." In Grand Rapids, women were saying to each other, "If it can happen to a judge. . . ."
"We have a right to expect zero tolerance toward domestic violence," said Noralee Carrier Potts. "There is no acceptable excuse. Not alcohol. Not adultery. There's no provocation for murder." Write it on the walls of the Carol S. Irons Hall of Justice.