An Abused Woman On Trial: Murderer Or Victim?

10 Years Of Violence Ends With A Single Gunshot

January 27, 1991|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff writer

Their lives were unremarkable. She was a medical technician. He was a computer operator. She worked the day shift. He worked the night shift.

She was outgoing and talkative. He was quiet and kept to himself. They lived together for 12 years.

Beverly Seward, 39, and Archie White, 37, led a comfortable, middle-class existence in a North Laurel town house until a warm Sunday evening last July, when a single gunshot shattered their secret lives.

White is dead from a bullet wound to the heart. Seward is chargedwith first-degree murder and scheduled to stand trial Wednesday.

She says she doesn't remember pulling the trigger. But the deafening noise, White's cry, her attempts to perform CPR and stop the bleeding-- these are things she'll never forget.

"I tried to find a pulse, I tried to do CPR; his mouth was full of blood," says Seward. "I tried to do compression to make the bleeding stop."

Seven months after the shooting, Seward maintains she never meant to kill White, the man she says she still loves and misses, the man who she says physically abused her with increasing brutality for 10 years.

On the night of July 29, Seward says, her intent was not to take White's life, but to save her own.

After years of living with White's beatings, threats and humiliations behind closed doors, Seward says, she was convinced on that night that he was prepared to take the violence one fatal step further. Her fear, she said, was born of years spent enduring and anticipating violence inflicted on her by the man she loved.

But when Seward goes to trial this week, she probably won't be allowed to talk about this fear, or the beatings she suffered, or the endless apologies she heard -- information that she believes is criticalto her legal defense.

In the eyes of the law, Seward was the aggressor the night she shot White, and any abuse or resulting psychological effects on her are irrelevant in a courtroom.

*

Twice in the last two years Maryland legislators have defeated bills that would have forced courts to hear evidence of physical abuse as a defense in cases like Seward's.

A new bill that would leave the decision to individual judges is now before the General Assembly. It would allow evidence of abuse, as well as expert testimony about battered spouse syndrome, to be used as part of a legal defense. Mental health experts say the syndrome leaves women virtually powerless to free themselves from their abuser. The bill also would require judges who block such testimony to state their reasons for barring it.

It comes at a timewhen credibility for battered spouse syndrome appears to be growing.

Just two weeks ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer visited the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup to meet with five female inmates, all of whom had been convicted of murdering their husbands or boyfriends. Each claimed to have been physically abused, but the women were blocked from using that information in their defense.

After listening to their stories, Schaefer pledged to take a freshlook at the issue.

Schaefer's visit followed a much-publicized decision last month by Ohio's outgoing governor to grant clemency to 25abused women who have been convicted of killing or assaulting their male companions.

To date, though, only two states -- Louisiana andMissouri -- recognize the syndrome in their statutes, and judges in just 15 states have allowed defense testimony about abuse and the syndrome.

Battered women's advocates say thousands of women suffer the syndrome, and they are working to change the laws in many more states.

Last year, Citizens Against Spousal Assault, a battered women's shelter in Howard County, served 414 clients and took 3,745 calls.

And each year between 3 million and 4 million women across the country are abused by their partners, according to the Public Justice Center, a Baltimore legal advocacy group. Of the 4,000 cases of spousalhomicide annually, 60 percent involve husbands killing wives. Many of the women who strike back are victims of battered spouse syndrome.

Over time, say experts, those suffering the syndrome become emotionally dependent on abusers for a sense of identity and believe that the abuse reflects their own shortcomings. Battered women often believe they will be killed if they try to leave.

Maryland courts have consistently refused to allow evidence of abuse or expert testimony onbattered spouse syndrome at trials of women who kill their abusers. Under state law, a person must believe his life was in immediate danger to plead self-defense to a killing. And the person must be under attack at the moment he strikes back.

But the majority of battered women who kill do so during a lull between abusive episodes, experts say. Even if this delay is only a matter of minutes, it can prevent them from pleading self-defense.

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