DETROIT — Francine Wilson, whose trial for killing her abusive husband became a landmark spousal abuse case and the subject of the 1984 TV movie “The Burning Bed,” has died. She was 69.
Wilson died March 22 of complications from pneumonia, said Jim Hughes, one of her children. A memorial service was held for her Wednesday in Alabama, where she had been living in the town of Leighton.
Wilson, whose last name was then Hughes, killed her husband, James “Mickey” Hughes, in 1977 by setting fire to their Dansville, Michigan, home while he slept.
At her trial, Wilson described years of abuse at the hands of her husband. Her defense attorney, Arjen Greydanus, said yesterday that Wilson’s testimony about the horrors she endured was effective and the jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.
“Temporary insanity — at the time — was not a recognized defense,” said Greydanus. “It was a hook I used to obtain a not-guilty verdict. I did not feel that a traditional self-defense approach would have resulted in a not-guilty verdict.”
The case changed the way domestic violence would be viewed, Greydanus said, describing it as “a catalyst for the creation of virtually all legislation regarding domestic abuse and the approaches law enforcement now uses to deal with incidences of domestic abuse.”
Jim Hughes, 50, remembers his father as “being kind of a monster looming over and everybody being frightened.”
“There were good times, but the bad outweighed the good,” Hughes told The Associated Press from his home in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
“He was very severe at times,” Hughes said. “The way the laws were, the cops couldn’t do anything. I remember the cops being there and she was just battered and bloody. He threatened her life. I’m a witness to that.”
The case became the subject of a book and a TV movie, “The Burning Bed,” starring Farrah Fawcett. The legal strategy, meanwhile, was later coined a “burning-bed” defense.
Hughes said that after the trial, book and movie, his mother just wanted to put it all behind her.
“She was tired of it. It was a chapter of her life that she considered over,” Hughes said.
Wilson remarried and worked as a licensed practical nurse. The family eventually moved south, first to Tennessee and later to Alabama.
In addition to Hughes, Wilson is survived by four other children, two sisters and two brothers.