'Battered spouse' legislation passes in Md. Assembly

April 06, 1991|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- In what is being hailed as a landmark action, the General Assembly overwhelmingly enacted legislation yesterday allowing evidence about "battered spouse syndrome"

to be introduced into Maryland's courts.

"It's definitely a precedent-setting legislation for the nation," said Judith A. Wolfer, legal counsel to the House of Ruth, an organization dedicated to helping battered women. "All we were asking for is to allow battered women to tell their stories."

Although the bill does not require judges to admit evidence of physical or psychological abuse, it does allow such evidence to explain a defendant's motive or state of mind in cases involving murder, manslaughter or maiming.

The House of Delegates passed the bill by a vote of 128-0, while the Senate passed it by a vote of 44-1, reversing a trend of the last two years in which the legislature has rejected similar bills.

"It's very gratifying, after all the time that we've been working with this," said Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

Earlier this week, some of the bill's supporters had wondered if the legislation would survive. After slightly different versions passed both houses, the bill then went to a joint conference committee.

One of the committee members was Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a long-standing opponent of the bill. Senator Baker cast the lone dissenting vote in the Senate yesterday.

"Particularly with Chairman Baker's opposition to the bill, there were many days I thought that we might not make it through, despite over whelming support for the legislation," Ms. Wolfer said. "It says something to Walter Baker's credit that he let the bill through" to a vote.

The legislation gained a valuable ally early in the legislative session when Gov. William Donald Schaefer threw his support behind it.

Dramatizing his support, the governor commuted the prison sentences of eight women, all of whom he said had been victims of abuse by their mates. Seven of the eight were serving prison sentences for killing their mates.

Reports in The Sun raised questions about whether Governor Schaefer had all the facts about the cases he commuted, but the articles raised no questions about the battered spouse syndrome itself.

Senator Boozer said he did not think the bill was hurt by the controversy that developed over the commutations.

Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery, who also has spent years working to pass similar bills, said one of the biggest obstacles was overcoming the stigma attached to such legislation.

"It was labeled as a "license to kill" bill, and that was very difficult to overcome because it was inflammatory," he said. "It's a fair trial bill. . . . I'm just gratified and delighted that it passed."

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