Justice is blind when battered women kill

Linda Cotton

February 08, 1991|By Linda Cotton

UNDER NORMAL circumstances people try, and well they should, all kinds of compromises to make a marriage work. He detests the opera, so she goes with friends. She feels degraded picking up his dirty socks, so he learns to put them in the laundry basket.

But there is a point at which struggle to keep a relationship together -- for society, for the kids, whatever -- crosses the line into sickness. That is what happens to battered women.

Perhaps it is because they have a low sense of self-esteem to begin with. Perhaps it is a result of being beaten into submission, locked in closets, burned, kicked and spat upon and isolated from friends and relatives until their identity is in tatters.

Regardless, more than a decade ago, experts documented something called the "battered woman syndrome," which describes the very unique mind-set of victims of repeated physical and psychological abuse. It is a complicated and hard-to-understand thing for people fortunate enough not to have experienced what, in other contexts, could be called torture. But a few things are clear.

One is that the victim believes the abuse is her fault and that she can prevent it from occurring again if she can only cook better, look better, clean the bathroom better. Anyone who has ever tried to hold a relationship together knows it is impossible to control what another person does, how he or she reacts. But the victims of battering do not know that. So they try even harder. Yet nothing works. The violence usually escalates; the batterer frequently isolates the victim, sometimes forbidding her to work or screening calls and visits from friends. All the while the victim -- increasingly separated from the kind of advice other women have access to -- believes that if only she can behave differently things will "get better." They do not.

Roughly half these women do leave their abusers. Some women stay in the relationship because their batterers threaten to kill them if they leave. Having been subjected to bloody beatings, they are reduced to weighing the relative dangers of remaining at home or running away, knowing their abusers will come after them.

Some women continue to endure unthinkable physical and emotional abuse because religious, cultural or socially learned beliefs make them feel it is their duty to keep the marriage together at all costs. Family members may reinforce that view, too, refusing to provide sanctuary and telling the victim instead to stay in the marriage and "work it out."

Some battered women do call the police for help. But though police in Maryland can arrest a batterer if there is evidence of abuse, they are not compelled to do so. Even if the man is arrested, he returns home -- angrier -- in a few days anyway.

Many victims are also financially dependent on their batterers. Shelters are few and far between and too temporary to offer a real alternative. So they stay, sadly, continuing to believe that the violence is their fault and they can change it.

The long-term result of living in this kind of emotional prison is that victims of repeated battering simply stop believing they can do anything to protect themselves. So they live every day with what they perceive to be an immediate danger of being killed, cowering every time the batterer gets irritated, fearful of his every move. Trapped. Helpless. Terrified.

When these women do strike back, an insidious Catch-22 in Maryland law will not allow evidence of repeated violent abuse to be heard at their trials -- what, in fact, provoked her action. Nor is expert testimony about what happens psychologically to battered women permitted in court. Or even testimony that the defendant was, in fact, a battered woman.

The catch is this: The traditional self-defense plea only applies when a victim strikes back while under direct attack. There is also something called imperfect self-defense, which applies when a victim honestly believes she is in imminent danger of being killed -- even if she isn't -- at the time she strikes back. Neither applies to battered women, who usually are incapable, both physically and emotionally, of retaliating during an abusive episode and usually wait until the batterer is vulnerable to strike back.

Now Maryland lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow evidence of repeated physical and emotional abuse to be introduced at trial -- police and hospital records and the like -- and to allow expert witnesses to testify as well.

Already there are cries from critics from the fringes that such a law would be a "license to kill" for women. This is nonsense. Such a law would no more encourage murder than the self-defense plea does. Allowing evidence of repeated battering at the trial of a woman accused of killing her batterer doesn't exonerate the defendant. It merely allows the judge and jury to take all the relevant evidence into consideration, which is the least that anyone -- including battered women -- has a right to expect from the American judicial system.

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