Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Battered Woman Syndrome Definition:

A species of self-defence to manslaughter or murder in which expert evidence is led to demonstrate that a female defendant in an abusive relationship comes to believe that to save herself she must kill her husband first.

Related Terms: Spousal Abuse, Battering Cycle, Domestic Violence, Self-Defence

Also known as battered spouse syndrome or battered spouse defense.

In Johnson v State, Justice Hunstein of the Supreme Court of Georgia adopted these words:

"Under appropriate circumstances a woman who kills her husband or boyfriend and raises the defense of self-defense may, as evidence of whether she acted in fear of her life, have an expert witness describe the battered woman syndrome.... The battered woman syndrome describes a series of common characteristics that appear in women who are abused physically and psychologically over an extended period of time by the dominant male figure in their lives ... including a) three-phase battering cycle that develops in abusive relationships and the state of psychological paralysis into which some women descend. [T]he battered woman syndrome ... is supported by a review of the sustained psychological and physical trauma compounded by aggravating social and economic factors that comprise the battered woman syndrome. "

In State v Kelly, Justice Wilentz of the Supreme Court of New Jersey noted this definition from a mental health expert, circa 1984:

"[B]attered woman (is) 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 concern for her rights. Battered women include wives or women in any form of intimate relationships with men. Furthermore, in order to be classified as a battered woman, the couple must go through the battering cycle at least twice. Any woman may find herself in an abusive relationship with a man once. If it occurs a second time, and she remains in the situation, she is defined as a battered woman."

In R v Lavalee, Ms. Lavallee was charged with the murder of her common-law husband who had verbally and physically abused her throughout their relationship. One evening, following a violent argument during a party at their home, the husband said he was going to kill her. As he was walking away, she shot him in the back of the head.

A psychiatrist called for the defence testified that Ms. Lavallee felt unable to escape the abuse because she had been frightened and intimidated to the extent that she felt helpless and powerless and trapped in the relationship. In the expert's opinion, she believed that the only way to save herself from death that night was to kill her husband.

Lavalee was acquitted at trial but the Manitoba Court of Appeal allowed the Crown’s appeal and ordered a new trial.

Ms Lavalee's lawyers plead self-defence even though the provocation appeared to have been mere words an death had resulted.

battered woman syndromeJustice Wilson used these words in restoring the acquittal:

"Given the relational context in which the violence occurs, the mental state of an accused at the critical moment she pulls the trigger cannot be understood except in terms of the cumulative effect of months or years of brutality.

"I do not think it is an unwarranted generalization to say that due to their size, strength, socialization and lack of training, women are typically no match for men in hand-to-hand combat.

"The requirement ... that a battered woman wait until the physical assault is underway before her apprehensions can be validated in law would ... be tantamount to sentencing her to murder by installment.

"Where evidence exists that an accused is in a battering relationship, expert testimony can assist the jury in determining whether the accused had a reasonable apprehension of death when she acted by explaining the heightened sensitivity of a battered woman to her partner’s acts. Without such testimony I am skeptical that the average fact-finder would be capable of appreciating why her subjective fear may have been reasonable in the context of the relationship. After all, the hypothetical reasonable man observing only the final incident may have been unlikely to recognize the batterer’s threat as potentially lethal....

"The issue is not, however, what an outsider would have reasonably perceived but what the accused reasonably perceived, given her situation and her experience.

"By providing an explanation as to why an accused did not flee when she perceived her life to be in danger, expert testimony may also assist the jury in assessing the reasonableness of her belief that killing her batterer was the only way to save her own life."

In R v Mallot, the facts lent themselves to a self-defence argument based on expert evidence of battered woman syndrome:

"The appellant, Margaret Ann Malott, and the deceased, Paul Malott, were common law spouses for about 19 years and had two children together. The appellant had previously been married for seven years to a man who violently abused her and their five children. Mr. Malott abused Mrs. Malott physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally. She had gone to the police, but Mr. Malott was a police informant on drug deals and the police told him of her complaints, resulting in an escalation of his violence towards her. A few months before the shooting, Mr. Malott separated from the appellant, took their son and went to live with his girlfriend, Carrie Sherwood. Mrs. Malott and their daughter continued to live at Mr. Malott’s mother’s house. Contact between Mr. and Mrs. Malott continued after the separation, as he dropped by his mother’s home on a regular basis, often bringing Ms. Sherwood with him.

"On March 23, 1991, Mrs. Malott was scheduled to go to a medical centre with the deceased to get prescription drugs for use in the deceased’s illegal drug trade. She took a .22 calibre pistol from Mr. Malott’s gun cabinet, loaded it and carried it in her purse. After driving to the medical centre with Mr. Malott, she shot him to death. She then took a taxi to Ms. Sherwood’s home, shot her and stabbed her with a knife. Ms. Sherwood survived and testified as a Crown witness."

The Supreme Court rejected the defence and upheld Mallot's conviction, writing:

"Pursuant to §34(2) of the Criminal Code, there are three constituent elements of self-defence where the victim has died: (1) the existence of an unlawful assault; (2) a reasonable apprehension of a risk of death or grievous bodily harm; and (3) a reasonable belief that it is not possible to preserve oneself from harm except by killing the adversary....

"On the first element ... an honest but reasonable mistake as to the existence of an assault is permitted where an accused relies upon self-defence. ... To the extent that expert evidence respecting battered woman syndrome may assist a jury in assessing the reasonableness of an accused’s perceptions, it is relevant to the issue of unlawful assault...."

"Expert evidence on the psychological effect of the battering of spouses was admissible, as it was relevant and necessary in the context of that case."

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