Legislation allowing evidence of "battered spouse syndrome" to be used in Maryland courts won't become law until July, but both sides in a murder trial that began yesterday in county Circuit Court agreed toact as if it were already on the books.
To do otherwise would have accomplished nothing more than delaying the trial until after the law went into effect, said the prosecutor and the defense attorney.
The defendant, Patricia Mae Terrell, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of her live-in boyfriend, Robert Ford Jr.
Terrell -- who told police after she was arrested that she had been physically abused by her first husband and, later, by Ford -- says she acted in self-defense when she stabbed and then fatally shot Ford during an argument last June 7 in their home in the 100 block of DefenseHighway, near Annapolis.
Terrell told police Ford had once held a.38-caliber handgun to her head and threatened her life. She admitted using the same gun to kill him.
Evidence of physical or psychological abuse to explain a defendant's motive or state of mind at the time of a killing has been allowed in some court cases, said AssistantState's Attorney Nancy Harford. But the landmark bill overwhelminglypassed by the state General Assembly April 5 allows courts to acceptthe evidence.
Because of his strong support for the bill, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is expected to sign it into law. 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 Schaefer had all the facts about the cases he commuted.
The syndrome is a psychological condition developed by some women who feel trapped in abusive relationships.
"This is a brand-new concept. The legislature just passed the law, so you are treading on virgin territory," Assistant State's Attorney Harford told the jury in the Terrell case. But Harford added that not every killing committed by a woman who has been beatencan be explained by the syndrome, and she predicted the jury would find Terrell guilty of second-degree murder.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Thomas Axley said, "This case is about self-defense." He said he would play a tape of Terrell's statement to police after her arrest to show how she had been a battered woman who suffered "life-threatening injuries."
But the prosecution played the tape, which captured Terrell confessing to the killing, first. Terrell stared, occasionally dabbing her eye with a tissue, as she listened to her anguished sobs on the tape. The tape also left many members of Ford's family wiping away tears.
"That's the man I wanted in my life, and I killed him. I killed him, I killed him, I killed him. I killed the man I loved," Terrell said. "He didn't deserve to die. . . . I want to go. I want to be with him. I want to go."
Harford asked the county police Detective Thomas Rzepkowski, who interviewed Terrell on the tape, what inconsistencies he noted in the woman's story. The detective responded by saying that the woman at first denied and thenadmitted stabbing Ford and that physical evidence such as blood stains in various rooms contradicted her account of a physical struggle.
In the tape, Terrell, 37, described the 43-year-old Ford as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. But, with Terrell and her 16-year-old daughter, Falisha Gardiner, in the same room, Ford was drinking fortified wine the night of his death. (In his opening statement, Axleysaid an autopsy showed Ford had a blood alcohol level of between .27and .30 percent, about three times the legal limit for intoxication.)
Terrell said Ford began arguing with her over her plans to visitFlorida to see another teen-age daughter and investigate suspicions that the girl's 27-year-old live-in boyfriend was abusing her. On thetape, Terrell said Ford began accusing her of planning to have sex with the boyfriend.
Gardiner fled the house and, in the course of astruggle that left an aquarium and other furniture overturned, Terrell grabbed a knife and stabbed Ford in the side. When Ford continued to come after her she grabbed a gun sitting in a bedroom and shot "wildly," hoping only to wound the man, she said on the tape. But the shot killed Ford within minutes.
On the hour-long tape, Terrell begins by saying she had been beaten by men before and, "I begged (Ford) never do it to me. . . . I am going to kill somebody for beatin' on me . . .
"There ain't no God. He should have just, you know, let itbe a wound," Terrell said. She added God should have told her boyfriend, "Look now, see that you love her. You shouldn't be beating up onher."
Axley, the defense lawyer, said Terrell would take the stand in her defense.