Taking Abuse into Account

April 20, 1995

It is probably naive to think that a Howard County judge's decision last week to grant a suspended sentence to a Columbia woman who murdered her abusive boyfriend signals broad acceptance of battered-spouse syndrome as a reasonable defense. More likely, the ruling simply indicates society's ongoing uncertainty over the issue.

While Maryland courts, like those in 10 other states, permit defense attorneys to introduce evidence of the aforementioned syndrome, most women who have offered it as a defense have been convicted. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer found the concept credible but touched off criticism in 1991 when he freed a dozen women who had been convicted of murder or assault against husbands and boyfriends they claimed had abused them.

Howard County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Sweeney's decision on April 12 to suspend the sentence of Tatyana Kogan, 26, is probably no more than one of those occasions when judicial prudence superceded a trend toward tougher sentencing. Judge Sweeney rightly took into account the abuse Ms. Kogan suffered at the hands of her boyfriend, 31-year-old Andrei Gordon, whom she stabbed to death after he threatened to kill her last October. Lawyers for Ms. Kogan, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, presented ample evidence that her self-defense claims were well-founded, including the testimony of a psychologist who concluded she suffered classic symptoms of a battered spouse.

Part of what fuels the public's ambivalence toward this defense is in proving a physical threat to the accused. In the Gordon case, Ms. Kogan attempted to hide the abuse from others, refusing to file reports with authorities out of fear. But friends testified about signs of abuse they witnessed. Also, there was evidence that Mr. Gordon stalked Ms. Kogan for years and coerced her into a relationship. Mr. Gordon was also wanted by Interpol for the 1991 slaying of a man in Yugoslavia, where he had ties to organized crime.

Killing an abuser is still homicide, and no one should forget that Ms. Kogan was found guilty and must complete five years of supervised probation and counseling. But the decision to suspend her sentence in light of the situation seems a welcome sensitivity.

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