Prosecutors, police see wisdom of a law allowing recognition of syndrome Passage was likely before commutations BATTERED SPOUSE SYNDROME & COMMUTATIONS

March 17, 1991|By David Simon and William F. Zorzi Jr.

The problem is real.

Take the case of Juanita Stinson, one of the eight women whose sentences were commuted last month by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

She endured years of vicious beatings and psychological abuse before shooting her husband 3 1/2 years ago. The 58-year-old woman dismembered Charles Stinson's body and then pretended for a year that he had simply disappeared.

Dismemberment, she said, was the only practical way for a slight woman to remove the body from her home. She refused to involve her sons to help.

Despite the gruesome aspects of the case, even the police investigator who worked for more than a year to arrest the Garrett County woman for the death of her husband became sympathetic.

"I really liked her," said Donnie Newcomber, a veteran state trooper. "The more I learned about what she went through, what she endured, the more sympathy I felt for her, and the less I felt for him."

For Mrs. Stinson and others who kill after years of torment, advocates say that "battered spouse syndrome" is ultimately responsible. They say there is a need for greater legal recognition of the syndrome.

The announcement Feb. 19 of the commutations by Governor Schaefer dramatically drew attention to the plight of battered women and the law the governor is backing to allow the introduction of evidence about the syndrome in Maryland courts.

The governor's interest in the subject was kindled after he met with five convicted women at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. All five said they were abused by their mates. Clearly moved by their stories, he threw his

support behind pending legislation to legalize evidence of battered spouse syndrome in Maryland courts.

While the governor's decision to commute the sentences of the women drew attention to the problem, politicians have indicated that passage of the bill by House and Senate committees would have occurred without the gesture.

Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, chairman of thHouse Judicary Committee, said his committee's approval of the bill was not influenced by Mr. Schaefer's commutations. "We didn't even think of it," he said.

But Nancy J. Nowak, the governor's aide who has been mos involved with the issue, said, "If the system were geared to taking this syndrome into account, the whole commutation process wouldn't be necessary in the first place."

Many experts say the syndrome is similar to other post-traumatistress disorders, creating a feeling of powerlessness that prevents women from fleeing abusive relationships. Thus, they argue, battered mates believe that their only escape is killing their abusers.

"It is not an esoteric concept, but a very basic one in the average psychiatrist's storehouse of knowledge," Dr. Ellen McDaniel, a psychiatrist, told the Judiciary Committee last month during a hearing on the bill to allow evidence of abuse to be used as part of a defense.

The age-old common-law self-defense principle is not sufficient, because to invoke it, a defendant cannot be the first to take aggressive action. Beyond that, Maryland courts have come to recognize "imperfect self-defense," in which the victim honestly -- but "unreasonably" -- believes he or she was in imminent danger of being killed or seriously injured.

"When a battered woman kills at a moment when she is not in imminent danger, she is considered by the court to be the first aggressor and is barred from asserting a claim of self-defense or imperfect self-defense," Judith A. Wolfer, director of the House of Ruth's Domestic Violence Legal Clinic, testified last month. "Testimony on her state of mind, consequently, is irrelevant, and evidence of her prior abuse and expert testimony regarding its effects on her are inadmissible."

Many prosecutors and even police officers involved in the original cases against the women whose sentences Governor Schaefer commuted say they agree that a change in Maryland law is necessary. However, some prosecutors say a minimum of corroborative evidence should be required before defense attorneys can raise the issue.

William M. Katcef, an Anne Arundel County prosecutor and lobbyist for the Maryland State's Attorneys Association, acknowledged a need for the pending legislation.

"This bill does what others did not -- to provide judges with discretion to admit or not to admit evidence with respect to prior acts of physical or psychological abuse. With this bill, if the judge determines this evidence is material [to the case], it comes in," he said.

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