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October 15, 2011

Battered Woman’s Syndrome Gains Judicial Support

Recent court decisions emphasize a growing trend in the acceptance of the notion that battered partners can use force to defend themselves and even kill their abusers. This domestic violence concept, referred to as “battered woman syndrome,” is based on the abusive and occasionally life threatening situations in which partners can find themselves. Such violent situations cause them to firmly believe that killing their partner is the only way to ensure their survival. This concept has been controversial however, as neither the DSM nor the ICD medical classification guides include battered woman’s syndrome as a condition severe enough to excuse alleged offenders.
The latest judicial decision evidencing such a broad understanding of domestic violence was the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole’s decision to release Gaile Owens, 58. Owens received the death penalty for being an accessory to the first-degree murder of her husband, Ron Owens, in 1984. Owens contracted with a man named Sidney Porterfield to kill her husband while she and her two sons were away. Porterfield beat Ron Owens to death with a tire iron in the couple’s home, and also received the death penalty. However, testimony of sexual assaults and physical abuse suffered by Gaile at the hands of her husband Ron led Tennessee Governor, Phil Bredesen, to believe Gaile could have been suffering from “battered woman syndrome.” Therefore, Bredesen abandoned Gaile’s sentence of death by lethal injection and arranged for her to be released on the condition she would regularly report to a parole officer in Nashville.
While the courts were originally hostile to this “defense,” battered woman syndrome (BWS) has now gained widespread acceptance not only as a mitigating circumstance, but even as a complete defense in some circumstances. Christopher Slobogin, a law and psychiatry professor at Vanderbilt University, gave some explanations for this change in judicial opinion. One element of BWS is “learned helplessness,” where the victim of domestic abuse believe they are powerless and don’t try to remove themselves from abusive and dangerous relationships. In addition, the number of social services, such as crisis hotlines and domestic violence shelters, has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. This increase in support coupled with the learned helplessness characteristic of BWS has persuaded courts to accede BWS as a “legitimate source of mitigation of punishment.”
Although BWS is not a legal defense, it can be used as a method of defending a woman accused of a crime. Likewise, BWS may legally constitute self-defense, provocation, insanity (according to the M’Naghten Rules), and diminished capacity. BWS helps a jury understand the woman’s motive for murdering her abuser, which from her perspective was self-defense. David Raybin, a Nashville attorney with Raybin & Weissman, discussed this tactic in one of his recent articles, stating that BWS works and can be used to support duress not only in homicide cases, but in any case where the woman claims she committed a criminal act because she was forced to do so by her boyfriend/spouse. Furthermore, since the courts have found battered woman have a self-defense right when killing in a non-beating situation, many have become hopeful that the steps being adopted by the courts will help end violence against women once and for all.
Battered Woman’s Syndrome: Trial Tactics
Posted By: Eston Whiteside