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In American and other Western-modeled courtrooms around the world, an increasing insurgence of testimony pertaining to the innocence or guilt of thousands of battered women abused by their intimate partners, who later lashed out and killed their violent spouses, is being examined from a psychological standpoint. Here, I will examine the positive benefits, negative consequences, and further implications of the use of testimony pertaining to Battered Woman syndrome in today’s judicial system. I also seek to establish a convincing claim that testimony concerning this syndrome should be admissible in all instances.
One million women are sent to doctor’s offices and emergency rooms around the country for treatment every year as a result of physical abuse, making battering by spouse or loved the leading cause of injury in American women (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005). To this end, nearly fifty percent of homeless women and children entering homeless shelters are fleeing from male violence, and nearly one thousand, four hundred women (or six percent of all murder victims) who are killed by abusive partners each year (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005). Similar statistics maintain that spousal violence contributes to one forth of all reported suicide attempts by women in any given year, providing a solid evidence that abusive relations create significant psychological harm.
Lenore Walk first coined the term “Battered Woman syndrome” in the context of a heated court decision in 1979, and continued to develop the term as classified by situational factors alone, insisting that no particular personality traits or factors predispose these women to engage in and maintain violent relationships by strongly rejecting the notion that battered women have masochistic personalities (McMahon, 1999). Although a precise definition of Battered Woman syndrome remains obscure despite growing acknowledgement by the scientific community and endorsement by the American Psychological Association, methodical studies by trained psychologists, many of which we will investigate in detail, have revealed in situations of domestic violence a typical pattern of behavioral functioning for the male batterer and his female victim in addition to typical responses on the part of this same female victim (McMahon, 1999). By breaking down the two components of this theorized psychological impairment, we first define syndrome as a collection of symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular disease (Hubble, 1999). Of great scrutiny, however, researchers question the usage of the syndrome classification because this term implies that all symptoms and responses are consistent for every woman in the applicable situation. The definition of a battered woman as determined by Hocking (1999) applies to a woman who is eighteen years of age or older, and who has been in an intimate relationship with a man who repeatedly subjects (or in the past subjected) her to forceful physical and/or psychological abuse. Bradfield (2002) suggests that Battered Woman syndrome can be defined as “a distortion of thought and perception, impaired ability to perceive and realistically appraise alternatives and delusions regarding the batterer and relationships,” although considerable debate continues on the breadth and specificity of the psychological impairment. The duality of the term Battered Woman syndrome describes both the pattern of violence within a relationship, “as well as the psychological and behavioral sequelae for the female victim”, in addition to the behavioral and psychological characteristics of the abusive male and his female victim (Hocking, 1999). Further described as a general pattern of reaction to physical and psychological abuse inflicted on a woman by her spouse, Hocking (1999) identifies those diagnosed with Battered Woman syndrome to possess a “collection of specific characteristics and effects of abuse that result in a woman’s decreased ability to respond effectively to the violence against her, and a set of particular symptoms, characteristics, and problems experienced by a woman in an ongoing physically abusive relationship with a man” (Hocking, 1999). These extreme circumstances may produce a continual state of shame, isolation, guilt, depression, passivity, learned helplessness, implications of traditional sex role attitudes, low-self esteem, and dependency, propelling a battered woman to a situation of choosing to kill herself or the batterer or else face being reduced to a psychological state in which sustained physical existence has little or any meaning or value (Ewing, 1990). Overall, the experience of a battered woman may include a history of fatal threats by her husband, prior life-threatening abusive incidents, and a belief that her husband could eventually kill her due increasing severity and frequency of the abuse, all factors which must be taken into consideration when analyzing the mental state of an individual on trial (Follingstand, Ponek, Hause, Deaton, Bulger, & Conway, 1989).
As the result of a perpetual state of fear produced by repeated physical abuse by one’s spouse, mental anguish may affect all aspects of human functioning in battered women, thus causing women in these circumstances to display a variety of characteristics similar to those exhibited by sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Hubble (1999) has concluded that individuals assessed as having Battered Woman syndrome experience fear and terror with elevated levels of anger and rage towards their abuser, in addition to impaired functioning including an inability to engage in planful behavior, which can become particularly inhibitory in determining a safe and effective escape from the abuser when conditions are favorable. This same source also focuses upon a finding that battered women may begin to lose the “assumption of invulnerability and safety that ‘things would turn out’ alright or ‘this won’t happen to me’”, concluding that such beliefs often dissipate in the onslaught of abuse and violence (Hubble, 1999). Based on this determination, it is fairly easily to understand why women who are battered respond with hypervigilance to cues of danger, noticing subtle aspects of their partner’s behavior which others would deem inconsequential and ignore, and as a result may initiate a preemptive strike to what appears to be unrelated behavior. Battered women also most often display a high tolerance for cognitive inconsistency, that is, they may express two logically inconsistent ideas but fail to comprehend the discrepancy (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005). Due to this phenomenon, many often do not assess their habitual situation and alternatives for habitation from a coherent standpoint, instead demonstrating in a diminished-responsiveness reaction focusing all energies upon survival within the relationship rather than seeking out other safe options outside of the marriage. As evidenced when Walker interviewed four hundred battered women in 1993, eighty-five percent felt they could be killed at any point in the future, but failed to dissolve the union for an unspecified reason based on diminished alternatives (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005).
A remarkable and often controversial aspect of Battered Woman syndrome which deserves considerable attention is the notion that many women are plagued by self-defeat in a theory of learned helplessness developed by Martin Seligman (1975). Seligman established in his laboratory experiments with animals that, after being exposed to variable aversive and unavoidable stimuli repeatedly in a randomized fashion, his mammalian subjects subsequently failed to utilize available opportunities to escape from the painful stimuli (McMahon, 1999). In a similar way, female humans learn that, as abuse by their husbands continue, regardless of any of her attempted actions to halt this violence, she cannot control the battering and hence, assume that she has no control over her own environment (Schuller, Wells, Rzepa, & Klippenstine, 2004). Women in these instances of psychological paralysis eventually cease to avoid the painful stimuli, believing that nothing can be done to prevent being subjected to the abuse and fail to recognize available alternative avenues for escape (Ewing, 1990).
Despite a presumption that most battered women do in fact live in this perpetual state of fear as an indication of learned helplessness, research has yielded evidence that some victims of domestic violence report a cyclic nature to the abuse, describing lulls in the destructive and painful behavior by their spouse (Schuller & Hastings, 1996). The three phases of the described cycle begin in an initial tension building stage where the wife will often perceive her husband as becoming exponentially more “edgy and more prone to react negatively to frustrations” (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005). During this phase, as described by Wrightman and Fulero (2005), a woman’s hypervigilant nature may be engaged such that she begins to anticipate her partner’s transitions of moods and his needs in the presence of small episodes of physical and verbal abuse. As a result of these more trivial abusive instances and a persistent fear of more painful episodes which will inevitably occur in the future, it appears that battered women most often kill their partners during this tension building phase. Following this apprehensive stage full of anxiety by the wife, an acute battering incident occurs and can last anywhere from two to twenty-four hours. As Wrightman and Fulero (2005) note, “anticipation of this second stage results in severe psychological stress for the battered woman; she becomes anxious, depressed, and complains of other psycho-physiological symptoms. ” The final stage which often mitigates flight impulses in a battered woman occurs when the abusive husband admits that his violent reactions are unacceptable and attempts to make amends through apology and promises that he will never behave that way again. This observation to be more thoroughly addressed is forensically significant in circumstances where a time gap between an abusive threat of death or seriously bodily injury by the husband and the battered woman’s prima facie criminal act (such as killing her abusive partner in his sleep) exists. In the case of these discrepancies, a symptomatic cycle of violence provides a psychological link in the criminal proceedings for the battered woman between the two temporally distinct occurrences (McMahon, 1999).
As a result of the apparent manipulation of battered women in this incessant cycle of abuse and absolution as identified by those of us on the outside of a particular series of circumstances, the American public have adopted views and often times strong stereotypes against battered women which can hinder a fair unbiased jury composition during trial. There is a tendency to characterize the violence of the murdered husband as ensuing from difficulties within the marriage rather than resulting entirely from a flaw in the violent partner himself, thus placing a slight yet significant degree of blame upon the battered woman (Bradfield, 2002). A study conducted by Reddy et al. addresses an underlying belief that the battered woman is somehow responsible for her continued abuse because she places herself repeatedly in a situation where she has prior knowledge that she will continued to be beaten (Bradfield, 2002). Society’s expectations assume that battered women should and will leave violent relationships prior to the actual murder of a spouse, and when this does not occur, individuals question the motives and rationale of the women in these relationships. Therefore, although the accused may inform a jury fully of her reasons for remaining with her husband throughout the battering cycles, a common sense understanding by jury members may lead them to question the severity of her abuse claims. Additionally, according to Bradfield (2002), these perceptions are further “reinforced by the dominant societal and legal conception of domestic violence that focuses on isolated and discrete episodes of violence which facilitates the position that leaving the relationship is the sole appropriate form of self-assertion” (Bradfield, 2002). Several misconceptions continue to circulate throughout American courtrooms particularly that battered women provoke their abuse, remain in these relationship because they enjoy the physical abuse aspect, or that violence fulfills some dark and deep-seated need within each partner (Spring & Winston, 1994), many of which could bear considerable influence on the decision of a jury during trial.
Although the scientific community acknowledges these assumptions of pleasure derived from physical violence and verbal ridicule as completely inaccurate, one must question what distinguishes a battered woman from other wives who are not physically, emotionally, or psychologically abused, and also the factors which differentiate battered women who kill from those who do not. Empirical research conducted by Hocking (1999) has revealed discrepancies between battered wives and those engaged in more healthy forms of marriage, stating that battered women are “over-socialized, submissive, dependent, conforming and self-less, cautious, controlling, superstitious, submissive, anxious,” and possess poor coping skills. Bradfield (2002) further explains that women in violent dyads are more emotionally dependent on their husbands than those in nonviolent dyads, have lower self-image than those in nonviolent unions, and tend to perceive their husbands more positively than women who are in nonviolent marriages (Anson & Sagy, 1995). On measures of marital and gender social organizational attitudes as assessed by Warren and Lanning (1992), it was determined that women in violent relationships responded significantly differently to four out of twelve statements concerning the division of labor and authority within the family than those in non-violent unions. According to this study, more women in the violent condition agreed that their husbands had the right to decide about intercourse, when she is able to leave the home for an outing, and that assertive women harm the dynamics of their families (Anson & Sagy, 1995). In terms of maintaining the relationship, battered women, it seems are more emotionally dependent on their husbands; “when their husbands go out, they feel, as may have been expected, more relieved and relaxed; they also, however, reported more frequent feelings of being angry, sad, and lonely (Anson & Sagy, 1995). Findings from this research study contradict a proposition that battered women have lowered self-esteem in that, it was verified that the self-image of women in violent marriages were quite similar to those in the non-violent condition, although the battered women were more nervous and less happy compared to their peers as reported by Walker (1984). Women in violent relationships, moreover, tend to perceive violence as commonplace, justifying their husbands actions with positive emotions, including love, and in many cases, actually believe that they bring their fate upon themselves. It is still a matter of debate whether these perceptions are a result of early socialization or perhaps are developed as a reaction to the violent martial experience (Anson & Sagy, 1995).
Ewing (1990) suggests that battered women who eventually commit murder may be subjected to more severe abuse, more frequent abuse, threatened with weapons, subjected to threats of death, especially threats of retaliation for leaving, are somewhat older and less educated, thus left with fewer options for economic support in the absence of an abusive partner, and have fewer resources for coping than do battered women in general. Additionally, women diagnosed as having Battered Woman syndrome are characterized with lower sociocultural and socioeconomic levels, more frequent use of alcohol and other drugs, greater anxiety and depression, more likely to still be habituating with an abusive partner at the time of the criminal offense, and exhibit significantly more deficits in cognitive functioning and disturbance in mental state on psychological tests than those who do not kill their spouses (McMahon, 1999). This same source determined that those with Battered Woman syndrome also demonstrated an increased risk for obsessive compulsive disorder, psychosexual dysfunction and post traumatic stress disorder as consistent with Walker’s description of Battered Woman syndrome (McMahon, 1999). But the true question at hand is whether situational factors, such as the husband’s repeated assaults, and the emotional state of his female victims, including feelings of helplessness and guilt, contribute to the manifestations of this syndrome rather than more enduring traits of the woman (Walus-Wigle & Reidmeloy, 1988). One could suggest that possibly certain disorders for example, borderline, self-defeating, or dependent personality disorders predispose an abused wife to the clinical development of Battered Woman syndrome. Walker cites research conducted by Rosewater (1985) assessing abused women using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, to examine the possibility of such a claim, suggesting that Battered Woman syndrome is identifiable by high scores on the MMPI scales measuring depression, anger, suspiciousness, and confusion and that low ego strength was typically found as well in repeatedly battered women (McMahon, 1999). As a result of this and previously discussed studies, it becomes apparent that battered women who kill do possess a particular pathology different from those who avoid this homicidal act, although it is not quite understood yet as to whether these psychological abnormalities result from the cycle of violence or by internal factors of the woman herself, the resulting syndrome represents a rationale for homicide in the courtroom.
In addition to a thorough psychological evaluation conducted by the defense counsel to assess a woman’s particular adherence to Battered Woman syndrome criteria, an examination of the previous history of abuse, attempts to leave the relationship, and a woman’s particular feelings concerning the deceased are taken into account when an abused woman who kills her husband is taken to trial. Although attaining the status of a battered woman does not in itself justify a homicidal act against one’s husband, testimony pertaining to this syndrome is important for arguing the self-defense claim. In many criminal proceedings, an expert witness is introduced to testify about the nature of the physical violence and psychological abuse the accused killer was being subjected to, offering, as Wrightman and Fulero (2005) suggest, “explanations for puzzling behavior by the [abuse] victim. ” Such Battered Woman syndrome testimony is elucidated to the court in an attempt to mitigate or absolve the abused wife from her legal responsibility for the act of killing; however, evidence of this syndrome is not a defense to a criminal charge in itself and must be used in conjunction within the existing framework of self-defense (3). Nevertheless, as McMahon (1999) also demonstrates, in some cases, American courts may rule that Battered Woman syndrome does not constitute a “scientific field of expertise”, and thus exclude expert testimony pertaining to this issue (3 year). Finally, in evaluating the necessity of Battered Woman syndrome expert testimony in any given court trial, one must take into account the existence of community myths and stereotypes where jurors and spectators fail to understand the dynamics of the domestic violence incurred as well as the patterns of response for the abused spouses, ultimately impacting the decision-making process for guilt or innocence (Bradfield, 2002). In such instances, a juror’s pre-existing beliefs about spousal abuse, belief in a just world, and his or her gender may influence the impact of expert testimony upon the outcome of the trial (Spring & Winston, 1994).
Expert testimony regarding Battered Woman syndrome has been met with mixed reactions and varied resulting verdicts in courtrooms around the world including those of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain since it was first deemed admissible in the 1979 trial of Ibn-Tamas versus the United States. Expert testimony is most often presented in trials of battered women who kill to provide the first steps for understanding the syndrome in the ordinary person who approaches jury duty without knowledge of the woman’s heightened perception of danger, the impact of this extreme fear on her thinking, and her rationale for being unable to escape the relationship (Schuller, McKimmie, & Janz, 2004), often factors that even the woman herself cannot understand or explain. Expert evidence of the pathology of Battered Woman syndrome may answer relevant questions pertaining to the individual case and the plight of the woman’s mental capacity such as “(1) why a person subjected to prolonged and repeated abuse would remain in such a relationship, (2) the nature and extent to the violence that may exist in such a relationship producing a response, (3) the accused’s ability in such a relationship to perceive danger from the abuser, and (4) whether the particular accused believed on reasonable grounds that there was no other way to preserve herself from death or grievous bodily harm than by resorting to the conduct giving rise to the charge” (Terrance & Matheson, 2003).
Despite the overwhelming landmark victory in the introduction of expert evidence for battered women who do kill their spouses, as Schuller and Rzepa (2002) indicate, “indeed the impetus it provided for the court’s eventual acknowledgement of the obstacles confronting a battered woman’s claim of self-defense, represents an important and significant legal achievement”, this form of testimony was met with opposition by legal and feminist scholars. This same source notes that in a jury simulation study, the beneficial impact of Battered Woman syndrome testimony solely depends on the defendant’s degree of fit within the passive characterization of the battered woman as described within the context of the trial (Schuller & Rzepa, 2003). In the description of events leading up to the murder such as aggressive or self-defensive acts including physical harm, verbal insults, or other variations of striking out against the abuser, Schuller and Hastings have determined that expert evidence is not as effective in rendering a not guilty verdict (Schuller et al. 2004). Schuller and Vidmar (1992) state that the presence of expert testimony, overall however, actually increases an individual juror’s tendency to give more credence to the woman’s claim of fear and danger, and when compared to a non-expert control condition, participants rated the likelihood of success with an insanity plea to be greater when taking into account the woman’s psychological situation as described in expert testimony. Finally, a moderate shift towards the ruling of manslaughter and a verdict of diminished capacity were evident when jurors were provided with background evidence pertaining the woman’s situation and typical responses of other women in similar abused lifestyles in the form of expert testimony (Schuller & Hastings, 1996).
Despite the increased usage of expert testimony and improved public awareness of any psychological implications stemming from domestic violence, this knowledge, as Bradfield (2002) describes, fails to be translated into an unwavering acceptance of self-defense as the appropriate defense for women who indeed kill their abusive husbands. Based on a principle which vows that those who are being unlawfully attacked by another human have the legal right to take reasonable and necessary steps in defending herself, the doctrine of self-defense is designed to apply equally to all persons, but meeting these criteria has proven a complex and controversial challenge for those plighted with Battered Woman syndrome when brought to trial (Terrance & Matheson, 2003). When a battered woman murders her abuser and then pleads not guilty by reason of self-defense, she encounters many obstacles in conveying this claim to a jury of her peers, who often times have presumed beliefs concerning the consequences and effects of violent behavior by men against women in intimate relationships (Schuller & Vidmar, 1992).
Despite the prevalence of the self-defense plea, most battered women who kill are convinced because as Wrightman and Fulero (2005) describe, the “requirements of the current self-esteem law equate self with only the physical aspects of personhood”, thus eliminating those instances where women kill sometime following beatings or threats from falling within this category. As a result, some battered women may plead not guilty by reason of insanity, arguing that they were unable to tell the difference between right and wrong at the time of the incident due to mental incompetence from sustained head injuries or by mental anguish from an abusive husband’s behavior, and therefore, should be exempt from culpability (Terrance, Matheson & Spanos, 2000). However, as experts contend, this defense can be construed as demeaning to the woman as she is merely acting to save her own life (Wrightman & Fulero, 2005). Based on 1987 statistics, Browner concluded that fifty-six percent of battered women who murdered their spouses pled not guilty by reason of self-defense, thirty-three percent pled not guilty to lesser charges in return for leniency, and only eight percent of all battered women brought to trial pled not guilty by reason of insanity (Follingstand et al. 1989).
To understand the failure of self-defense pleas, one must extract all applicable meaning as defined by American laws to address how each aspect could be argued to imply innocence for the defendant on trial. The principle of self-defense is governed under the standard of reasonable necessity, however, when the homicide is committed outside of an actual instance of battering, the jury may have a hard time deciphering an adequate legal ruling on this issue. As Bradfield (2002) finds, “absent [of the] raise[d] knife-pointed gun scenario – the immediate confrontation – where the threat conforms to the paradigm case of self-defense and the seriousness of the threat is obvious, battered women need to be able to convey to the jury the necessity of the resort to fatal force in their circumstances,” thus proving a woman’s fate to be largely dependent on have convincing her argument is constructed. To assess the legitimacy of a woman’s claim for self-defense, domestic violence must be understood in the realm of an overall pattern of power and control within the violence, not just as a series of isolated events. Attorneys highlight the culminating incidents of battery to provide a backing for the reasonableness of the woman’s actions so that, as the law has traditionally required, it seems logical that an “ordinary man” would attempt these same deadly actions in a similar situation (Schuller & Rzepa, 2002). This definition and understanding of reasonableness of deadly force varies by jurisdiction in the United States, so that in some courtrooms a subjective standard is utilized such that reasonableness is based on the cognition of the defendant rather than that of an ordinary person (Schuller et al. 2004).
The laws of self-defense equate self in terms of corporeal aspects of human existence, including those processes required for sustaining life, but fail to encompass aspects of psychological functioning and dimensions of the battering experience, which can prove problematic for an abused woman who kills her husband (Schuller et al. 2004). A doctrine of psychological self-defense has been proposed to fill this gap in self protection in order that an individual who kills to preserve the normalcy of her psychological state to safeguard the meaning and value of her physical existence be justified in this killing (Ewing, 1990). If laws were amended to reflect this understanding, jurors would be provided with an expanded understanding of the defendant’s circumstances, and as a result, I believe that those assessed as having Battered Woman syndrome would be permitted a more realistic and fair trial.
An important component in the homicidal situation to be considered both as consequence to mental health criteria and in the courtroom is the imminence of threat the victim was in at the time of her decision. As mentioned previously, self-defense criteria demands that the defendant must prove to a jury of her peers that her actions were reasonable when taking into account the degree of danger she was under. In these laws of self-defense, a precise and narrow legal focus is placed on discrete incidents of violence, the most recent deemed most significant without regard to the evidence of the history of the relationship, determining these facts merely contextualize the abusive incident (Schuller, Wells, Rzepa, & Klippenstine, 2004). As a consequence Schuller et al. (2004) insist, “there is a failure to elicit at trial the experiences and effects of living a life of being abused. ” This distortion is further reinforced in the very design of how the evidence is presented in the question and answer format of the examination-in-chief and cross-examination. When unable to understand the abuse as a continuous cycle rather than purely in isolation, the imminence of danger to the defendant may not be obvious to the court or jury despite the appropriateness of the self-defensive action (Follingstand et al. 1989). Additionally, when taking into account that nearly twenty percent of these murders were committed outside of direct confrontation (Schuller et al. 2004), during a period of relative calm such as when the husband is sleeping, rulings of not guilty by reason of self-defense dropped from seventy-six percent in attack conditions to forty-four percent when no immediate threat was apparent (Terrance, 2000). Due to the delay between the batterer’s last violent act and the woman’s deadly response, not surprisingly, (Schuller et al. 2004) also found that these factors exerted a large degree of influence on the jury’s perception of the act as defensive, rendering more guilty verdicts in this condition. In conclusion, however, one must keep in mind that like a modified definition of self-defense, the threat of imminence can be construed in favor of the battered woman. In these instances, jury members may understand the context of imminence in terms of the perpetual state of fear model, such that the threat exists based on the very nature of the violent partner and his presence within the home which could instigate further abusive encounters (Schuller & Hastings, 1996).
In addition to the influence of understanding and instructions for the applicability of self-defense provided by the court to jurors during deliberation, the personality and previously held convictions of jury members as relevant to Battered Woman syndrome play a primary role in determining whether the defendant will be charged with murder or released from custody. A statistical analysis of verdicts prior to 1980 concluded that twenty-seven percent of all adults attributed equal or predominant blame to the wife in the instance of abuse, and based on this determination, one can conclude that during this time period, at least one fourth of jurors also possessed this inherent bias towards a woman’s liability (Follingstand et al. 1989). Such assumptions may be a result of a strong subscription to the belief in a just world, such that, individuals feel that those who violate ethical and moral boundaries deserve and will receive proper punishment by external forces around them. An empirical study by Rubin and Peplau established that individuals who strongly accept this belief in a just world tend to devalue victims and actually merit abusive occurrences because, as proposed, they are unable to identify with being in the same position of the victim (1989). However, a follow-up study conducted by Follingstad et al. revealed that only eight percent of the total variance in jury verdicts was due to the participants’ belief in feminism theories and in a belief in a just world combined (Terrance et al. 2000). In general, Spring and Winston (1994) support this finding in explaining that those who express a weak belief in a just world are often more lenient in their not guilty verdicts, also concluding that expert testimony more strictly applies to the defendant in the described individual case than for those who were strong believers of a just world. Gender also had a strong influence in verdict leniency in that women, compared to men, are more likely to deem the defendant’s claim for self-defense more credible (Schuller et al. 2004). Specifically, Schuller et al. (2004) explains, “in comparison to male participants, women were more likely to find the defendant’s claim of fear more plausible and to believe that she was trapped within the relationship,” but noted no gender differences in terms of perception of other available options to the defendant instead of murder. In conclusion, it becomes clear that individual personality traits, attitudinal beliefs, and predetermined factors such as gender moderate the influence of expert testimony and self-defense pleas in trials of battered women who kill abusive spouses.
Despite the many controversial issues surrounding the assessment and usage of Battered Woman syndrome testimony in court, one must understand that the inquiry as to whether an accused woman did indeed kill her husband due to a mental disorder diagnosis and thus should be pardoned from conviction is solely at the discretion of the legal system. Psychological findings and evidence of pathology are only as effective as they are conveyed to jury members and judges through expert testimony, and therefore, steps must be taken to refine and increase the saliency of all presented information for the defense. It is important to note, however, that by introducing this terminology into today’s courtrooms, attorneys and psychologists alike are perpetrating negative connotations of battered women. When emphasis is placed on the personal inadequacies described under the realm of learned helplessness to explain a battered woman’s failure to flee from her abuser, the legal shift away from the objective rationality of her actions to preserve her own life paints a picture of a dysfunctional and incapable human being. This is not to say that the theory of learned helplessness should not be applied to women in similar circumstances, but instead, I deem it important to fully educate the general public against stereotypes disseminated and supported through misinterpretation of this evidence. In a comparable light, Schuller et al. (2004) found that the presence of expert evidence providing a diagnosis of Battered Woman syndrome without adequate explanation led mock jurors to perceive the defendant as more distorted in her thinking and less capable of making responsible choices, factors which could be of great consequence in later child custody hearings. Taking all of these findings into consideration, I must agree with the use of Battered Woman syndrome testimony when applied properly with full explanation, but also concur with Hubble’s (1999) recommendation that the court should examine the defendant’s financial situation, access to affordable childcare, and the likely effectiveness of legal protection that could have been provided prior to murder as well. Finally, as is now evident, Battered Woman syndrome is a plight endured by many thousands of Americans and must be sufficiently examined by legal and psychological scholars alike to provide a proper setting for expert testimony and an adaptive role for the psychological self-defense plea in the courtroom.
Anson, O. Sagy, S. (1995). Marital violence: Comparing women in violent and
nonviolent unions. Human Relations, 48, 285-305.
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