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Oregon Trails: the Margaret Biggs Trial

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. — For five months now, a lot of attention has been focused on the murder trial of a former Yreka woman, Jody Arias, in Arizona. The defense in the trail argues that the killing of her boyfriend was in self defense.

The case brings to mind a similar trial in Grants Pass which occurred almost 20 years ago when a Josephine County woman was tried for the murder of her estranged husband whom she claimed mentally and physically abused her. In this case, the suspect Margaret Biggs, argued that she too was really the victim.

Josephine County was rocked in April of 1994 by the murder of Tom Briggs at this house in the Cathedral Hills area south of Grants Pass. There was no doubt that he was shot by his estranged wife, Margaret Whitney Biggs. The two had been sharing this house for some time, but he lived downstairs while she occupied the top floor.

Former District Attorney Clay Johnson explains their relationship, “She had him sign a contract where he had to live in the bottom of the house the he gave to her. There was a locked door between the lower level and he was not to go through that door. If they ever went anyplace in the car, he had to sit in the back seat.”

It was apparently a precarious arrangement that erupted in gunfire in April of 1994.

“He had come up around and from the basement entrance, and apparently knocked on the door, and they probably had coffee together,” Clay says. “He wanted to take the vacuum downstairs and she didn’t want him to; maybe they tussled over the vacuum cleaner or maybe it was self inflicted. She changed the scene. She took the vacuum cleaner away and put a knife next to his body.”

When police arrived, Margaret Biggs had a big bruise on her face, and other bruises on her body she said came from her husband hitting her. Police found 15 spent rounds from an AK-47 rifle and a dead Tom Biggs on the stairway. The case went to trial about six months later and lasted almost all of November.

“This was a very long case for Josephine County,” Clay says. “It lasted almost a month as I recall. There was clearly a lot of media interest, statewide media interest. It was interesting to the public because the defense hired the guru on women’s domestic violence, Lenore Walker. She was a national figure and had written several books.”

To prepare for her testimony, Clay read her books, including “The Battered Woman Syndrome” and “Learned Helplessness.” Something that he sees as similar to the Jody Arias case.

“It was a little troubling, in reading all of that about how men are marginalized as victims and men cannot be victims in domestic violence situations. If a man was murdered by his wife or his partner, then it must be his fault. That theory ran through her writings and all of the research I had to do. That was very troubling.”

Lenore believes, “A woman doesn’t get attention by the courts when she could prevent the homicides, and should she commit homicide to try and protect herself, then very often the vengeance against her is seen in these courtrooms across the country.”

The state brought in it’s own expert to challenge Walker’s assessment of Margaret Biggs’ motivation. Rebuttal witness Dr. Alice Brill commented, “The major problem is anger, not depression.”

Once the case went to the jury, after a month of testimony, it took jurors less than an hour to convict Margaret Biggs of murder. Defense Attorney Tom Hauser was shocked, “When you get to the jury system it strikes me that some consideration is of what the evidence is, and some consideration of what the dynamics of this relationship here is necessary.”

“In the space of time that the jury gave to my client, they couldn’t have discussed anything. They had to have their mind made up well before they walked into the jury room.”

“You know Tom Biggs was a victim,” Clay says. “He was a lonely man and got himself into a bad situation with her. She had a terrible temper. She had outbursts in court a couple times and he was a lonely man and a victim. He there needed to be justice for him and so it was very gratifying that the jury was able to see that.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since Margaret Biggs killed her husband at their home in Grants Pass. She was convicted and sent to prison for murder where she is serving a 20 year sentence at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility near Portland. Biggs is due for possible release in April of 2015, almost exactly 21 years after the murder. The question still remains, can men become victims or are they usually the aggressor?