Battered Spouse Syndrome

Battered Spouse Syndrome
The Maryland Code
MD Code, Cts. & Jud. Pro. § 10-916 – Battered Spouse or Battered Woman’s Syndrome
(a)(1) In this section the following words have the meanings indicated.
(2) “Battered Spouse Syndrome” means the psychological condition of a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse by a spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, or former cohabitant which is also recognized in the medical and scientific community as the “Battered Woman’s Syndrome”.
(3) “Defendant” means an individual charged with:
(i) First degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter, or attempt to commit any of these crimes; or
(ii) Assault in the first degree.
Evidence and expert testimony
(b) Notwithstanding evidence that the defendant was the first aggressor, used excessive force, or failed to retreat at the time of the alleged offense, when the defendant raises the issue that the defendant was, at the time of the alleged offense, suffering from the Battered Spouse Syndrome as a result of the past course of conduct of the individual who is the victim of the crime for which the defendant has been charged, the court may admit for the purpose of explaining the defendant’s motive or state of mind, or both, at the time of the commission of the alleged offense:
(1) Evidence of repeated physical and psychological abuse of the defendant perpetrated by an individual who is the victim of a crime for which the defendant has been charged; and
(2) Expert testimony on the Battered Spouse Syndrome.
State vs. Smullen, 380 Md. 233, 844 A.2d 429 (2004)
Discussion of the Battered Spouse Syndrome:
The battered spouse and battered child syndromes have different origins but in recent years have undergone a parallel development. In the context of providing support for the assertion of self-defense when the defendant (woman or child) kills an alleged persistent abuser in the absence of a contemporaneous provocation that the public at large would find indicative of an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm, they have become recognized, by some courts and in some of the literature, as kindred doctrines.
Dr. Lenore Walker, an academic and clinical psychologist, is usually credited with first describing the battered spouse syndrome, which she called the “battered woman syndrome.” See Lenore E. Walker, THE BATTERED WOMAN (1979); also THE BATTERED WOMAN SYNDROME (1984) and **441 Battered Woman Syndrome and Self-Defense, 6 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 321 (1992). Dr. Walker identified a “battered woman” as one who is repeatedly subjected to any forceful physical or psychological behavior by a man in order to coerce her to do something he wants her to do without any concern for her rights. She described three phases to the battering cycle, which, she said, may vary in both time and intensity. Phase I she referred to as the “tension-building” phase, in which minor incidents of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse occur. The woman is not severely abused, but the batterer begins to express hostility toward her. See Hope Toffel, Crazy Women, Unharmed Men, and Evil Children: Confronting the Myths About Battered People Who Kill Their Abusers, And The *254 Argument For Extending Battering Syndrome Self-Defenses To All Victims Of Domestic Violence, 70 S. Cal. L.Rev. 337, 349 (1996), citing Walker, THE BATTERED WOMAN SYNDROME, supra, at 95. Phase II consists of an acute battering incident, in which the batterer “typically unleashes a barrage of verbal and physical aggression that can leave the woman severely shaken and injured.” Toffel, supra, 70 S. Cal. L.Rev. at 349, citing Walker, THE BATTERED WOMAN SYNDROME, supra, at 96. Phase III is a contrition stage, in which the batterer apologizes, seeks forgiveness, and promises to change. The apparent transformation of the abuser back into a loving partner, according to Walker, “provides the positive reinforcement for remaining in the relationship.” Id.
The essence of the syndrome is that this cycle repeats, and, indeed, Walker asserts that the syndrome does not exist unless it has repeated at least once. Worse, perhaps, than the mere repetition, is the fact that, over time, the cycle becomes more intense, more frequent, more violent, and often more lethal. See People v. Humphrey, 13 Cal.4th 1073, 56 Cal.Rptr.2d 142, 921 P.2d 1 (1996). One aspect of the syndrome is what had been described as “learned helplessness”-where, after repeated abuse, women come to believe that they cannot control the situation and thus become passive and submissive. See Toffel, supra, 70 S. Cal. L.Rev. at 350, citing Walker, THE BATTERED WOMAN SYNDROME, supra, at 45-47, 49-50. The etiology of this aspect is described in Erin Masson, ADMISSIBILITY OF EXPERT OR OPINION EVIDENCE OF BATTERED-WOMAN SYNDROME ON ISSUE OF SELF-DEFENSE, 58 ALR 5th 749, 762-763 (1998):
“Through experience, the victim learns that when she attempts to defend herself-by reaching out to others or trying to leave-that she will be the victim of more severe violence. The batterer blames the abusive relationship on her inability to respond to his ever-increasing demands so that the most effective short-term method of reducing incidents of violence is to be more subservient.”
This is a key aspect in the purported relevance of the syndrome in a self-defense context, as it offers an explanation *255 of why the defendant, having been previously subjected to abuse, simply did not leave the home or take some other action against her abuser. In State v. Allery, 101 Wash.2d 591, 682 P.2d 312, 316 (1984), the court observed that expert testimony “explaining why a person suffering from the battered woman syndrome would not leave her mate, would not inform police or friends, and would fear increased aggression against herself would be helpful to a jury in understanding a phenomenon not within the competence of an ordinary lay person.”
Another aspect of the battered spouse syndrome directly relevant in a self-defense context, is that the victim becomes **442 able to sense the escalation in the frequency and intensity of the violence and thus becomes more sensitive to the abuser’s behavior. See Walker, supra, 6 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y at 327-328. As described by Elizabeth Bochnak, WOMEN’S SELF-DEFENSE CASES: THEORY AND PRACTICE (1981), quoted in Bechtel v. State, 840 P.2d 1, 12 (Okla.Crim.1992):
“The battered woman learns to recognize the small signs that precede periods of escalated violence. She learns to distinguish subtle changes in tone of voice, facial expressions, and levels of danger. She is in a position to know, perhaps with greater certainty than someone attacked by a stranger, that the batterer’s threat is real and will be acted upon.”
Ricker vs. Ricker, 114 Md. App. 583, 69 A.2d 283 (1997):
The CJP Article recognizes the “Battered Spouse Syndrome;” however, the Court does not have to accept the syndrome, in all circumstances, as an explanation of a petitioner’s failure to complain of abuse.  In this case, the Court found insufficient evidence of the battered spouse syndrome.
Battered Spouse - Code.doc35 KB
Battered Spouse - Smullin Case.pdf232 KB
Battered Spouse - Ricker vs Ricker.pdf50.11 KB


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