Opinion

It’s Been 25 Years Since the Lorena Bobbitt Case, And We’re Still Getting It Wrong

It’s been 25 years since the infamous Lorena Bobbitt case, and ABC is airing a retrospective called “Bobbitts: Love Hurts” to mark the occasion. The shocking incident and the legal aftermath captivated the nation in the years before O.J. Simpson made trial-watching a regular pastime.

The jarring facts

On the night of June 23, 1993, 24-year-old Lorena Bobbitt severed her husband’s penis with a kitchen knife at their home in Manassass, Virginia while he was asleep. She then fled the home with the knife in one hand and the severed penis in the other, and drove to a friend’s house. Along the way, Lorena threw the severed penis out the car window. Meanwhile, her husband, then 26-year-old John Wayne Bobbitt, bleeding profusely, had a friend rush him to the hospital. Ultimately, authorities were able to find Bobbitt’s severed penis, and after a nine-hour surgery, surgeons were able to reattach it.

The backstory

Lorena Bobbitt maintained that her attack had not been premeditated, but that in the moment, she had reached a limit after years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband. According to Lorena, earlier in the night of the attack, John had violently raped her – and not for the first time.

The legal aftermath

Both Bobbitts went to trial – Lorena for “malicious wounding,” and John for “marital sexual assault.” Both were acquitted, but for different reasons.

First, in November 1993, John Bobbitt was tried for “marital sexual assault,” the crime encompassing rape of a spouse when the rape victim does not suffer physical injuries. He was acquitted after a two-day trial, largely because the evidence against him was purely circumstantial. Lorena’s testimony of repeated victimization at the hands of her husband simply wasn’t enough to convince a jury to convict.

At Lorena’s trial in January 1994, the successful defense theory was that the incident had happened, just as the headlines described, but that Lorena should be found not guilty based on reason of temporary insanity; years of being abused by her husband had cause her to psychologically snap, and she was seized by an “irresistible impulse” to fight back.

Forty-eight witnesses testified over an eight-day trial, all recounting a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship between the Bobbitts. Evidence was put forth that, like many victims of ongoing domestic violence, Lorena Bobbitt suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. On the grounds of temporary insanity, Lorena Bobbitt was acquitted, then ordered to undergo a 45-day psychiatric evaluation. That evaluation concluded that she posed no immediate danger to herself or the general public, and she was released.

Looking back at the Bobbitt case today

Make no mistake about it: the Bobbitt case is famous because it involves a severed penis, and for no other reason. Had Lorena Bobbitt cut her husband’s finger, arm, or face, the case would have been indistinguishable from the thousands of domestic violence cases that fail to make headlines each year.

At the Law & Crime Network, we often cover trials in which the defendants and the victims have long histories of domestic violence. This week, Law & Crime is live-streaming the trial of N.J. v. Jeremiah Monell– a case in which a husband with a long history of domestic abuse is accused of stabbing his wife to death in front of their 12-year old son. While following the tragic story of that murder, truths about pervasive domestic violence are inescapable; violence begets violence, and long-term victims often make seemingly absurd choices. Tales of a roadside search for a severed penis and a crazed Latina girl played for years in headlines, but at its core, the Bobbitt case is nothing more than another sad tale of the predictable results of domestic abuse.

While 2018’s #MeToo movement shined something of a new light onto sexual misconduct, the public has always purported to abhor forcible rape. Some version of “rapists should be castrated” is so common a viewpoint as to be cliché. And yet, when Lorena Bobbitt did just that, she was ridiculed, vilified, and ultimately prosecuted.

Even in retrospect, there is much America continues to get wrong about the Bobbitt case. From the public’s snickering to the prurient interest in John Bobbitt’s short-lived career as a porn actor, the case still captures all the wrong kind of attention.

All signs point to John Bobbitt being a habitual criminal and domestic abuser. Shortly after his trial for raping Lorena Bobbitt, he was convicted of battering a 21-year old exotic dancer he’d met on a publicity tour. Five years later, he was convicted of theft, and was later sentenced to prison for assaulting his then-wife. Even after being released from prison, he was arrested twice more for battering that wife before they divorced.

In John Bobbitt’s 20/20 interview, he denied being abusive, but said “yeah we fought,” denying that it rose to the level of “spousal abuse.” Instead, he describes himself as “cool, calm, collective [sic],” and, “peaceful.”

The two-hour special “The Bobbitts: Love Hurts” airs on Friday, Jan. 4 at 9:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

[Image via ABC screengrab]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. She is a frequent media contributor, and is Of Counsel to Smedley & Lis, in Woodbury, New Jersey. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos

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