Judy Norman shot and killed her husband, John Norman, while he was sleeping. After she was convicted of voluntary manslaughter at trial, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, citing as an error the trial court’s refusing to submit a potential verdict of acquittal on the basis of self-defense. How could it be self-defense if her husband was asleep? The answer is simple, she couldn’t. However, battered women’s syndrome is no longer recognized by the psychological community and may be an improper diagnosis for women who kill their husbands to utilize for as a defense.
State v. Norman is one of a series of cases involving the admissibility of expert witness testimony on battered women’s syndrome for a self-defense to homicide for women on trial for killing their husbands. Dr. Lenore Walker uses the term battered women’s syndrome to describe the similar characteristics victims of prolonged physical and psychological domestic abuse exhibit after battering cycles, which include a tension building stage, an acute battering incident, and then extreme remorse and loving behavior on the part of the battering male. Walker believes the women eventually become trapped by their fear, fearing even more brutal attacks if they leave, and eventually exhibit learned helplessness.
For a self defense claim, a defendant usually needs to face an imminent threat of death or severe bodily harm, but defense attorney’s have tried to argue that the prolonged threat victims of domestic abuse face is in some sense imminent, even if they are not currently being attacked.
For example, in State v. Kelly , the New Jersey Supreme Court held that expert testimony on the defendant’s battered women’s syndrome should have been allowed during her trial for killing her husband with a pair of scissors. Testimony that the defendant exhibited battered women’s syndrome was deemed relevant her credibility that she reasonably believed the use of deadly force was necessary to protect herself against death or serious bodily injury by her husband.
However, in State v. Norman, The North Carolina Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Judy Norman’s spousal abuse did not constitute a defense to homicide absent imminent peril. Her conviction of voluntary manslaughter was upheld, despite the horrifying facts of her abuse. Judy Norman had faced twenty years of abuse from her husband. His abuse included battery, burning her with cigarettes, forced prostitution, and forcing her to eat dog food off of the floor. The defense psychologist described the abuse as torture, degradation, and reduction to an animal level of existence, where all behavior was marked purely by survival…” Judy Norman was terrified of her husband, and explained that she did not leave for fear that he would seriously injure or even kill her. After a particularly horrible beating, Judy finally called the police, but out of fear did not press charges. She attempted to commit suicide. She next tried going to a social services agency, but her husband dragged her out, beating her. Later that night, he passed out drunk, so Judy went to a relative’s house, got a gun, came home, and shot him to death. The trial court convicted her of voluntary manslaughter. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, accepting that she exhibited Battered Wife’s Syndrome and that a jury could have found her actions justified as an act of perfect self-defense. The North Carolina Supreme Court granted review, but ruled that absent imminent peril, her previous abuse did not constitute a valid self-defense claim. The opinion included discussion of the floodgates that would be opened if they allowed her defense, including homicidal self help. They said she had ample time and opportunities to resort to other means. However, she had tried going to the police and social services, both of which had failed her.
Reading these cases, I was immediately troubled by the use of battered women’s syndrome in court. This was not because it was excusing the women for killing their heinous abusers, but because my interest in gender and psychology had revealed the troubling implications of battered women’s syndrome as a psychological disorder. Feminist legal scholars, such as Anne Coughlin, similarly criticize the use of battered women’s syndrome as institutionalizing within criminal law negative stereotypes of women.
I e-mailed Dr. Elizabeth Krause, a professor I had at Penn, to ask her for her opinion. She confirmed my thoughts, informing me that in psychology, the term battered women’s syndrome is no longer used. It has been replaced by the overarching psychopathology label of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified. She agreed that there was a great deal of controversy over the idea that battered women were “helpless”, since it turns out they were doing many things actually to protect themselves and their children that were quite active, such as staying with their partners for fear of being killed by their partner. Victims of such serious domestic abuse are more likely to be killed by their partners when they try to leave than at any other time in their relationships. Furthermore, isn’t killing your abusive partner the ultimate non-helpless act? The helplessness inherent in the description of the battered women’s syndrome seems incoherent with the fact patterns of murder.
In fact, Dr. Walker noted that women who hire third parties (e.g., contract killers or convincing men in their lives to kill their husbands) perhaps had an even stronger claim for self-defense because it enforces the ideas of learned helplessness. Therefore, putting the negative stereotypes associated with the disorder aside, perhaps the syndrome will be legally effective only for a small segment of abuse victims on trial.
I asked Dr. Krause what she thought would be a more appropriate defense, and she responded “I would think that a defense of PTSD or a Dissociative Disorder would be an appropriate defense as it is possible that a “battered” woman may be triggered by various cues at home or other places that may lead to a flashback of violence experienced or to a dissociative episode in which she attacks and kills her partner while he is sleeping. She may not even have memory for the event if she was dissociating at the time of the homicide.” It is imperative that defense attorneys and defense psychologists look towards different psychological disorders and evaluate the symptoms of each abuse victim to properly diagnose them. While my knowledge of the defense claims used by victims of abuse who kill their abusers is by no means extensive, it is ludicrous that the focus of at least our Criminal Law textook is on a psychological disorder that is no longer even recognized by the psychological community. It is imperative that the legal system utilizes a better understanding of psychological defenses in order to effectively defend women like Judy Norman.