Balancing the Scales

February 17, 1991

A woman is battered every 15 seconds in this country. In Maryland, an estimated 150,000 such incidents occur annually. Last year, 50 women were killed by husbands or boy friends after trying to escape abuse.

Yet when the tables are turned and the woman kills her tormentor, past battering incidents are deemed inadmissible in court. These demoralized, victimized women are viewed as aggressors because they typically kill after a beating, thus precluding any claim of self-defense.

A bill now making its way through the General Assembly would balance the scales of justice for these women by letting them tell their stories to the judge and jury that will ultimately decide their fate. Defense attorneys representing these women would be able to present testimony on the "battered spouse syndrome," a complex condition in which victims are controlled through systematic violence and rendered psychologically incapable of escape.

Proponents say such testimony is crucial to help juries understand why women stay in these destructive relationships and are sometimes driven to kill their abusers when they fear for their lives.

Prosecutors and others argue that admitting such evidence would be tantamount to handing women a license to kill. Any woman perceiving herself abused, they contend, could invoke this defense as justification for murder.

This is a vast exaggeration of what this bill would do. Allowing women to explain the events and circumstances behind their actions would no more lead to wanton murder than the prevailing interpretation of self-defense law. It would establish neither a new defense nor justification. What it would do is place the actions of these women in context so they can be judged, fully and fairly, on all the facts relevant to their cases.

Supporters, which include the State's Attorney Association, are on firm ground in moving to formally permit such evidence in criminal trials. It is time for state legislators to balance the scales.

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