Is Battered Spouse Syndrome A Credible Defense?

January 27, 1991


Battered women who kill their abusers should be allowed to tell the whole story in court.

That's the bottom line for their sympathizers.

But if a pattern of physical abuse can be considered a defense for homicide, will other women be encouraged to kill?

Absolutely not, say those who support changes in state law to allow such testimony.

Battered spousesyndrome is a state of mind that judges and jurors must consider, they insist. When women take the desperate step of killing their abusers, they generally do so in a lull between episodes. Testimony from a victim and from expert witnesses about the syndrome's effects can help a jury understand why a woman might have believed she was in imminent danger or why she didn't leave a relationship, supporters of changes in state law say.

"The important thing is that people don't getthe sense that by being allowed to introduce this evidence, women are just going to go free," said Dorothy Lennig, legal coordinator at the House of Ruth, a battered women's shelter in Baltimore.

"At this moment, the jury doesn't know anything about the past," Lennig said. "You walk in with this woman who looks like she just took out her gun and shot this guy when she was upset.

"What we're saying is, atleast let the judge or jury know about past abuse just to complete the picture."


Many judges and prosecutors say they question whether battered spouse syndrome has sufficient credibility in the scientific community.

"We don't want fads all of a sudden to be introduced as evidence if there's not a good scientific base to it," said Dario Broccolino, coordinator of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association.

"If it assists in finding the truth, we're for it; if it only confuses the issue, we're against it."

Many prosecutors oppose the current bill, saying it would require the judge to show why the syndrome is not relevant.

"The burden is on the person who wants tointroduce it to show that it does have a basis in the scientific community," Broccolino said. "That's the way it is and the way it's always been in this area, and that's the way we prefer to keep it."

Critics say the bill also gives legislators power to determine the propriety of testimony -- a decision they believe should be left to the courts.

"Our position is that the judge now has discretion to admitinto evidence previous incidents of abuse," said William M. Katcef, the legislative representative of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association.

"And if a judge were to make a determination that the evidence is relevant, he should -- and would, in all probability -- admit it."

NOTE: SEE ALSO MAIN STORY ( An abused woman on trial: murdereror victim?)

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