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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at DCU chapter.

Netflix’s true-crime documentary Killer Sally follows the story of Sally McNeil who shot and killed her abusive husband on Valentine’s Day in 1995. Surprisingly, the docuseries is less of an investigation of the events of that evening, but rather an eye-opening evaluation of the way in which the legal system, the media and society at large, treat victims of domestic abuse. Director Nanette Burstein delivered us a true-crime series in a way which we don’t often see. Take the numerous series produced about Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. Those series exploited victims’ experiences, rather than exploring them. Killer Sally does so much more for victims than those series ever did. Burstein herself says, “I have no interest in gratuitous true crime.”  Killer Sally just gets it right.

Burstein delivers an eye-opening critique of the way the justice system treats victims of domestic abuse, particularly those suffering from “battered woman syndrome.” Sally was not the “ideal victim,” in the eyes of everyone around her. She was a bodybuilder, a strong and aggressive woman, so given the deep-rooted misogyny embedded within the justice system in the 90s and today, the handling of this case was unsurprisingly, brutal. From prosecutor Daniel Goldstein’s cross-examination to the media’s mishandling of the case, Sally was ruthlessly vilified despite the physical and psychological abuse she endured at the hands of her husband. Goldstein appears in the second episode of the series, recounting his involvement in the case. Goldstein, to this day, remains central to the vilification of Sally McNeil. In excerpts shown from the trial itself, we hear him build a character profile of her as an aggressive woman who killed her husband, “in a jealous rage.” He says that she not only shows violence towards her husband, 

but against neighbours, babysitters. Anybody who crosses Sally McNeil is in for it.

Goldstein tore Sally apart in the courtroom. He made her out to be a jealous and bitter wife, who intended to brutally murder her husband from the get-go. He claimed that she could not possibly be a victim of domestic abuse due to her muscular physique and threatening demeanour. In this documentary, we see Goldstein continuously reinforcing his misogynistic views on Sally, critiquing every single one of her actions in the course of the trial. He even shows disgust towards her in this documentary, for falling asleep in the investigation room, “wow…that is something that a person not guilty of murder would never do.” I mean, she endured 12+ hours of questioning, is some rest really what stood out to Goldstein as an implication of guilt? To Goldstein, Sally could never be a real victim of abuse. She did not appeal to his ideals of what a real victim of domestic abuse should look like, how they should act, and what they should say. He says,

Looking at Sally McNeil’s behaviour to me, I didn’t see a great deal of remorse there, nor did I see her being the fearful battered woman she claimed to be.

Because Sally physically gave the appearance of a woman who could take care of herself, she could not possibly be perceived as a victim of domestic abuse. Sally herself even recalls her defence attorney, Bill Rafael warning her to not lift weights, “we want them to know you’re not a big woman.” Rafael was attuned to the way in which battered women were vilified by the justice system. He believed that Ray McNeil abused Sally, but did not believe in the justice system helping her. He says, 

it was clear that he was the be-all, end-all of her life. She was absolutely 100 per cent devoted to him. And even if he wacked her around a bit she may have deserved it. And I learned that that’s one of the beliefs that battered women developed over time.

Despite the abuse that Ray inflicted towards Sally, even friends close to the family protect Ray and vilify Sally to this day. Ray’s best friend was key in reinforcing this narrative. In the documentary, he states that,

I was pretty angry at a lot of the untrue stuff that was said about Ray. They tried to turn him into the villain. Ray McNeil attacked her because that was her story. That was not the real story.

DJ’s recount of Ray’s relationship with Sally reflects the phenomenon of victims’ experiences never being believed. Because Ray was his best friend, he ignored Ray’s violence towards Sally, reducing the cruel abuse to simple toxicity and jealousy on Sally’s part,

I think Sally knew that Ray was leaving. She knew that on Valentine’s Day. Instead of him being with her he was out with somebody else. And I knew that she wasn’t just gonna stand by and let him leave like that.

The expert witness for this trial also appears in this documentary, giving us an insight into the harms of the “ideal victim” narrative. She recalls the prosecutor making battered women like Sally out to be almost silly for not leaving their abusers. However, she states that in reality, 

There is no one way battered women react. But the reality is, anyone can become a battered woman. All it takes is being in a relationship with someone stronger and more willing to engage in violence against you.

Killer Sally tells us that Sally McNeil’s demeanour and physique are what ultimately led to her 25-year sentence. The harmful and untrue beliefs that society harbours about victims of domestic abuse changed the trajectory of Sally’s life forever. Burstein highlights this perfectly in her documentary, and the use of expert witnesses to counter Goldstein’s ideals of what a battered woman should be, send out a message that anyone can become a victim. Whether you are a bodybuilder like Sally, or have never worked out in your life, you can be a victim of abuse. Burstein validated those victims who were in Sally’s position. Physically, she was strong, but that did not mean that Ray did not abuse her. Burstein sheds light on this, and Sally herself, in validating her own abuse throughout this documentary, also validated other victims’ experiences,

to me, it seemed like he came after me. To me, and I’m not even gonna say seemed – he did come after me.

The final episode of this series shows Sally McNeil’s life post-release. After serving her 25-year sentence in the Central California Women’s Facility, she was finally released in the Summer of 2020. She now lives at the Veterans Transition Centre in North California, works in a warehouse and attends a support group. The final act shows Sally getting married to her new boyfriend, sharing that, “he’s not trying to control me. He lets me be me.” With her son John giving her away at the wedding, and her daughter and grandchildren’s present, it looks like the new McNeil family is on the road to a happy and healthy life!

She then says “I’m free,” as she parts ways with the audience.

20 year old law student. HerCampus DCU Editor in Chief