For two weeks in 1994, the nation couldn’t take their eyes away from the television sets, and not because there was some outrageous reality series going on. What was happening was certainly reality, and it was certainly outrageous, but it was actually real life. Lorena Bobbitt faced up to 20 years in jail when she was on trial for malicious wrongdoing for slicing off her husband’s penis with a knife while he slept in the middle of the night. She has never denied severing John Bobbitt's penis, has talked about it publicly many times, so why didn't Lorena Bobbitt end up in jail? The answer is far more complicated than it may have appeared to eager audiences tuning in the '90s.
The Trial & The National Conversation Around Lorena
Lorena’s trial lasted from September 10 to 22 in 1994, with most of it televised for viewers at home who needed to hear every claim and allegation she had against her allegedly abusive husband, John. (If there were a two week trial television today surrounding a wife cutting off her husband’s penis, wouldn’t you tune into every second of it as well?) According to USA Today, Court TV (now TruTv’s) coverage of Lorena’s trial doubled their ratings for the year.
The reason for eager eyes and ears was simple, but came with a long, and complicated backstory for the Bobbitts, with abuse allegations and claims of violence. As Lorena explained to the court, John allegedly emotionally and physically assaulted her over their four years of marriage, and the night she cut off his penis — after he allegedly raped her — she feared for her life. Lorena’s testimony was a giant wakeup for the nation, as domestic abuse was now at the forefront of conversation, and everywhere on TV. The Bobbitt trial was a turning point for this discussion, and on September 14, in the middle of Lorena’s trial, President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act, thanks to pressure from feminist organizations.
The Argument: Lorena's Life Is Most Important
While it certainly appeared that things might get slightly bit better for women in the future, Lorena’s fate was decided by a jury. If convicted, she would face up to 20 years in prison. Her defense attorney, Lisa Kemler, told the court, “What we have is Lorena Bobbitt's life juxtaposed against John Wayne Bobbitt's penis," Kimler said. "It was his penis from which she could not escape and... I submit to you that at the end of this case you will come to one conclusion: that a life is more valuable than a penis."
On the stand herself, Lorena testified that she did not remember actually cutting off John’s penis. It was only after she had left their apartment and started driving away, penis still in hand, that she realized what she had done. A psychiatrist for the defense testified that Lorena had clearly suffered from a "brief reactive Psychosis" under which she attacked "the instrument that was the weapon of her torture,” which was John’s penis.
Eventually, the jury found Lorena not guilty of malicious wrongdoing, and cited that she was “temporarily insane” while she performed the act. However, under Virginia law, since she was declared insane during that brief time period, she needed to undergo a psych evaluation and was sent to a mental hospital for 45 days. After those 45 days were up, the court and her doctors reevaluated her mental state, ultimately deciding that she was no a harm to herself or others, and she was released.
A psychiatric evaluation seems like an odd punishment for a women who was acting out of self defense. But, considering the court did declare her insane at the time, they were legally obligated to send her off for evaluation. In juxtaposition, John also stood trial for marital sexual assault and was found not guilty; he was released with no further consequences.
Now, 25 years later, Lorena has now put that entire ordeal behind her, and lives with her new partner and their teenage daughter. But as she describes in Amazon's Lorena, getting to this point — after reliving her alleged trauma in front of the nation and undergoing mental treatment for "insanity" — was absolutely no easy feat.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.