Is Battered Women’s Syndrome an Inappropriate Diagnosis for Self Defense Claims by Women Who Kill Their Husbands?

18 Feb

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.


5 Responses to “Is Battered Women’s Syndrome an Inappropriate Diagnosis for Self Defense Claims by Women Who Kill Their Husbands?”

  1. Jon Hanson February 14, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    This is a terrific post, Cassie. Among other things, I was struck by the floodgates argument, not simply because Judy Norman had tried other routes, but because it imagines either that there is not threshold of torture and degradation that could be set to limit the number of claims or that such behavior is in fact common.

    • bethgreaney February 14, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

      I really enjoyed your post, Cassie. This was also an issue that frustrated and puzzled me last year in Crim law.

      Another implications of these “battered women” cases is the psychology of the judge/jury. It seems like on a base level, in the criminal system, the “goodness” or “badness” of the victim should be irrelevant in sentencing. However, it is not difficult to believe that perceived culpability is related to the so-called “goodness” of the victim. Do we think someone is more culpable for killing an innocent child or a drug-using prostitute?

      This varying degrees of culpability based on the victim’s “goodness” is especially apparent in cases of rape. In college, a survivor of sexual assault spoke to my class. She was 14 and raped for her virginity. A Florida court gave the offender an incredibly high sentence (the highest that had ever been given for rape and other related crimes until that point in Florida; I believe it was two life sentences). The survivor acknowledged that the incredibly harsh punishment was because of the jury’s perception of her innocence and chastity. Had she been a prostitute, would the same sentence have been given? I think not.

      • Joan Cassie Mathias February 14, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

        I completely agree that similar issues exist in rape prosecution. I can imagine it would be hard for jurors to remain objective and uninfluenced by the victim’s “goodness” or “badness”, as you put it. I find these biases even more troubling, not in the sentencing of the rapist once convicted, but when defense attorneys are allowed to question the alleged victim in order to make her look more like your prostitute example and less like the example of the survivor that spoke to your class. This questioning often comes up when rape victims describe how they feel like going to trial feels like being raped again, and perhaps explains why so many victims are unwilling to complete trial. Rape shield laws do limit the ability of defense attorneys to question victims about her reputation (e.g., promiscuity). As to prior conduct, the shield laws limit the ability of defense attorney’s to question the alleged victim about general conduct unless it is for a very specific purpose. However, defense attorneys are allowed to ask the victim, while she is on trial, often in front of friends and family, and general sexual history that is known to the defendant (apparently because it speaks to mens rea) and general sexual history specifically with the defendant. This line of questioning is introduced to show that the defendant has a motive to lie (e.g., she is pregnant and doesn’t want to admit the sex was consensual). Relevance is a minimal standard at law, requiring only that there is any relevance. One can only imagine how humiliating and traumatizing it must be to be on the stand after a rape, being accused by his attorney that you are lying or that you are promiscuous, in order to make you look more like the “prostitute” and less like the “virgin” dichotomies that you spoke to. There is a huge problem of juries acquitting once they find out the victim had had sex with the perpetrator before. While the laws do provide for a prior notice hearing by the judge to preview the questioning and provide notice to the victim, I don’t think there is any amount of procedural safeguards that could prepare a victim for that kind of public humiliation. I do not mean to say that the rape shield laws are ineffective — I believe they help, and understand that their breadth is limited by the 6th amendment right of a defendant to confront his witness, but it is nonetheless another troubling example of the re-victimization and humiliation that victims face in the courtroom.

  2. Joan Cassie Mathias February 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Also, Beth, the prostitute-virgin dichotomy for rape victims seems to really relate back to the Knowles & Ditto’s Preference, Principle, and Casuistry that DAS discussed in his post. Courts are obligated to come up with objective, reasoned, principled decisions about these difficult crimes, such as rape and murder. However, it is impossible to imagine that judges and juries are not influenced by “emotional” aspects of the case, such as the horrific histories of abuse, or the fact that the rape victim was previously a virgin.

    • bgreaney February 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

      I completely agree with your comments!

      In addition to rape, I think the same psychology applies for murder. For example, “revenge murders” (i.e. you killed my father, I kill you in revenge) have been a permitted form of killing in much of history. Even though these crimes are no longer accepted in our legal system, I think the notion that a revenge killer is less culpable than someone who murders an “innocent” victim remains prevalent. I think of “A Time To Kill,” where the father of a girl who was brutally raped and left to die killed the rapist. Yet, the jury found him to be innocent. The book (and movie) make us question our own sense of morality in cases of revenge and the way our legal system treats such crimes.

      I think this very tension between justifying (at least in part)revenge killings and the status of the law make shows like Dexter so popular. Is a serial killer who kills serial killers a morally culpable individual? Is he sick and psychotic, or is he doing society a favor? How should society treat him – as a hero or a villain? How should the law treat him – guilty or not?

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