Battered Spouses and the Law

March 19, 1991

The state Senate will vote soon on a bill allowing judges and juries to consider "battered spouse syndrome" in cases in which a woman (or man) assaults or kills a mate who has been physically abusive to a point of provocation to violence. This is good legislation, long overdue. Without such a law, it will be left up to the governor to determine after conviction and sentencing when a woman was justified in reacting so violently.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer recently commuted the sentences of eight women who were said to suffer from the syndrome. Seven of them killed their mates. That is a governor's prerogative. We would even say it is his duty in cases in which he concludes a gross miscarriage of justice occurred.

But in a lengthy article in The Sunday Sun, reporters David Simon and William F. Zorzi Jr. point to major flaws in the governor's review of these cases. Their information raises doubts about the justification for releasing some of these women.

In commuting sentences, the governor should be just as thorough in testing the evidence as a judge and jury. After all, what the governor said was that he was letting convicted killers go free because under Maryland law they were not given the chance to prove in a court of law that they were victimized to the point of justifiable homicide.

Paul Davis, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, told reporters Simon and Zorzi, "In all cases [involving the eight women for whom clemency was recommended] we found what we thought was evidence sufficient to convince us that they were battered women." But the reporters uncovered startling information that the governor failed to consider before acting. Prosecutors were not contacted about these women's trials, for instance, and transcripts that tell a different story were apparently not reviewed.

Adding to the confusion, time and again gubernatorial aides cited privacy laws and executive privilege to keep the evidence and their use of it from public view.

Some advocates for the women, operating under the auspices of the House of Ruth and the Public Justice Center, say they made a thorough, fair and professional case for the governor to consider. No doubt, but the public has to take their word for it. They consider much of the report confidential. They are advocates of the women involved and the issue involved. For the governor to have made his decision -- even if it were the right one -- on so one-sided a presentation was irresponsible.

"Battered spouse syndrome" is real. The law should allow the use of its existence in court. But the claim should always be tested, and skeptically. Otherwise it could become one of those casually invoked justifications for crimes that are not in fact justifiable.

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