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Battered Woman Syndrome

Compiled by Michelle Strucke and Kate Hajjar

One in four women in the United States has experienced domestic violence during her lifetime, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Institute of Justice, report Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence released in July 2000.

Such violence can be fatal. Every day in the United States, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners on average. In 2000, 1,247 women and 440 men were killed by an intimate partner.  Thirty percent of all murders of women and 5% percent of all murders of men were intimate partner homicides. See Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, Intimate Partner Violence, 1993-2001, February 2003; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. 1993-2004, 2006.

Battered Woman Syndrome, a theory developed in the 1970’s that is now associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is sometimes used in court cases as mitigation in homicide cases where a battered woman kills her abuser. Early on, the evidence was not admitted, but it is increasingly admissible despite questions about Battered Woman Syndrome’s validity as a psychological disorder. It is currently admissible in seventy-six percent of states (39 states as of 2000).

Case Study: Battered Woman Syndrome

Classic Cases

Ibn-Tamas v. United States 407 A. 2d 626 (D.C. 1979)

Dr. and Mrs. Ibn-Tamas’ marriage was filled with recurrent violent episodes followed by periods of relative calm. Dr. and Mrs. Ibn-Tamas fought the morning on which Mrs. Ibn-Tamas shot her husband.  During the course of their argument, Dr. Ibn-Tamas repeatedly hit his pregnant wife, dragged her up a stairs, and pointed a gun in her face shouting at her to leave the house. Ultimately, after a lull in beatings, Mrs. Ibn-Tamas fired the fatal shot after seeing her husband crouched in office doorway, holding what she believed to be a gun.

The prosecution argued that Mrs. Ibn-Tamas, afraid of being thrown out of her home into a strange city, decided that she had had enough of her husband’s abuse and affairs with other women and ambushed him in his office. On appeal, the defense contended that the trial court erred in excluding Dr. Lenore Walker’s Battered Woman Syndrome testimony. The defense sought Dr. Walker’s testimony to explain the concept of "wife battering" and give an opinion as to whether Mrs. Ibn-Tamas’ behavior corresponded with the behavior of other women in her studies. According to the defense, Dr. Walker’s testimony would help the jury assess the credibility of Mrs. Ibn-Tamas’ assertion that she believed her life was in imminent danger, and thus had shot her husband in self-defense..

Legal Standard:
Before expert testimony about Battered Woman Syndrome becomes relevant; the party seeking to use expert testimony must establish that:

(1) the victim is a battered woman and; (2) the jury would be aided by expert testimony to explain her behavior.

Once determined to be relevant, Battered Woman Syndrome testimony must endure two levels of inquiry. The testimony must pass an admissibility test and the probative value must outweigh its prejudicial impact.

Dyas Standard:
To pass the admissibility hurtle, the Battered Woman Syndrome testimony must pass a three-prong test supplied by Dyas v. United States:

(1) The testimony’s subject matter "must be so distinctly related to some science, profession, business or occupation as to be beyond the ken of the average layman."
(2) Second "the witness [must] have sufficient skill, knowledge, or experience in that field or calling as to make it appear that his opinion or inference will probably aid the trier in his search for truth."
(3) Finally, expert testimony is inadmissible if "the state of the pertinent art or scientific knowledge does not permit a reasonable opinion to be asserted even by an expert."

The D.C Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in excluding Dr. Walker’s testimony. In fact, the appellate court refused to hold that, as a matter of law, Dr. Walker’s methodology fell short in any way.  The D.C. Court of Appeals clarified that satisfaction of the third Dyas prong does not demand that there be acceptance of the results based on Dr. Walker’s methodology, only that methodology itself is generally accepted in the scientific community.

Having proved both relevant and admissible, the probative value of the Battered Woman Syndrome testimony must also outweigh its prejudicial impact. The trial court admitted evidence of Dr. Ibn-Tamas’ prior acts of violence against his wife. Thus, in light of the evidence already before the Court, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that admitting Dr. Walker’s testimony had only a minimal prejudicial impact. Dr. Walker’s testimony on Battered Woman Syndrome was "highly probative" and directly related to Mrs. Ibn-Tamas’ perceptions at the time of the killing, which was central to her self-defense claim.

The D.C Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court. On remand, the trial court concluded that "the defendant failed to establish a general acceptance by the expert’s colleagues of the methodology used in the expert’s study of ‘battered women.’" In an appeal from the order entered after remand, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that the trial judge ultimately had discretion to exclude Dr. Walker’s testimony. Because there was no evidence of "manifest error" on the part of the trial court, the D.C Court of Appeals declined to reverse the trial court’s ruling.

State v. Yusuf 800 A.2d 590 (Conn. App. Ct. 2002)

In this case the state presented evidence proving that the victim was a battered woman suffering from battered woman syndrome. State v. Yusuf, 800 A.2d 590 (Conn. App. Ct. 2002) at 10-11. The court allowed the state’s expert to testify to the cyclical nature of abuse and the effects this violence has on battered women. Id. at 11. The state argued that expert testimony was necessary to help the jury understand why the victim did not end her relationship with the defendant, why she did not report prior assaults to the police, why she did not leave the scene after the assaults, and why she complied with defendant’s demands. Id. at 12.

Before expert testimony on Battered Woman Syndrome becomes relevant the state must establish that the victim is in fact a battered woman and that an expert’s testimony will help the jury understand her conduct. The court also determined that evidence of the defendant’s prior abuse of the victim was admissible: 1) the evidence was relevant and material to at least one exception to the rule against prior crimes evidence and 2) the probative value of the evidence outweighed its prejudicial impact.  The state’s prior crimes evidence corroborated the expert’s testimony.  Thus, the state presented sufficient evidence of an abusive relationship to make the expert’s Battered Woman Syndrome testimony relevant.

Legal Critiques of Battered Woman Syndrome

(1) Jury Misunderstanding
David L. Faigman, et al., Science in the Law: Social Science and Behavioral Science Issues, 2002: Faigman, et al. explain that the specific legal relevance of Battered Woman Syndrome, which is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, is unclear. Courts routinely disagree as to whether it relates to a claim of justification or excuse. They note that courts fear that juries will misconstrue Battered Woman Syndrome testimony as suggesting that the defendant possesses a diminished capacity or lack of responsibility for the act. Battered Woman Syndrome testimony is meant to educate the jury about the realities of domestic violence.

(2) Feminist Critique
Anne M. Coughlin, Excusing Women, 82 Cal. L. Rev. 5 (1994):
Coughlin writes that feminists assert that Battered Woman Syndrome testimony, when used as an element of a defense, paints women as irrational sufferers of a mental health disorder incapable of self-control. She explains that this suggests that women should not be held to the same rigorous legal standards as men. Coughlin suggests that the use of different legal standards supports a gender hierarchy within the marriage. Additionally, Coughlin explains that the inference that sufferers of Battered Woman Syndrome are incapable of choosing a lawful response to their husband’s abuse insinuates that men must control their "irresponsible" wives. Coughlin argues that the Battered Woman Syndrome defense fails not simply because it holds men and women to different standards, but also because it implies that women do not have the same capacity for self-governance as men.

Critique of Battered Woman Syndrome in Social Science

Dr. Lenore Walker – known as the "mother of Battered Woman Syndrome," used original research to posit theories of victims’ psychological responses to violence, including learned helplessness and a three-stage theory of violence called the "cycle theory" of violence, whose stages consist of tension-building, acute battering, and, most important in answering the question of "why don’t battered women leave?", reconciliation or "loving contrition."

Walker describes a "battered woman" as any woman "18 years of age or older, who is or has been in an intimate relationship with a man who repeatedly subjects or subjected her to forceful physical and/or psychological abuse."

Cycle Theory - This theory encompasses the time between the batterer (man’s) threat to kill or cause bodily harm to a woman and the defendant (woman’s) act. There are three stages:
(1) Tension building phase – build up of minor abusive incidents (emotional threats, verbal outbursts) in which the woman is hyper-vigilant to her spouse’s cues and changes her behavior accordingly
(2) Acute battering incident- severe or lethally violent battering incident
(3) Loving contrition- batterer is remorseful and charming and promises never to harm the woman again

Methodology - Walker developed this theory on the basis of research she conducted primarily in the form of interviews with victims of domestic violence, drawn from her clients and from self-referred battered women who volunteered for her study. Her major study was of 400 battered women and involved a team of researchers who conducted 6-8 hour interviews with the women, utilizing both open and closed-ended questions.

Learned Helplessness - a theory first developed through experiments by Martin Seligman in which dogs were trapped in cages and given inescapable random shocks. As the situation persisted, the dogs stopped attempting to leave the cage even though escape routes sometimes were provided, demonstrating to researchers that they had lost any motivation to change their situation. Walker analogized the situation of the women to the situation of the dogs, stating that over time, women’s motivation to respond to acts of violence would diminish.

Related research, much of it interviews with women who were victims of domestic abuse, investigated the claim that women who were victims of domestic abuse had sufficiently uniform experiences resulting in particular effects as to warrant the categorization of their experiences into "Battered Woman Syndrome."

Cycle Theory of Violence Critique:
Much of that research found that the scientific basis for the claim was questionable. For instance, while Walker claims that her research finds evidence of ‘Battered Woman Syndrome’ in a ‘majority’ of cases, almost half of the cases she used did not adhere to the three-stage cycle theory pattern, rendering her conclusions questionable.

More recent research (by Angela Browne, Dobash and Dobash, and Mary Ann Dutton) finds much variance in the "cycle of violence" Walker posited, leading even Walker to note the variance in her later years and to conceptualize four common patterns that diverge from the "cycle of violence":
(1) Stable, long-term battering
(2) Acute battering is less severe, and the contrition state is diminished or absent
(3) "Lethal" level of acute battering followed by contrition, but contrition disappears as time passes
(4) Once acute battering stage is reached, it remains at "lethal" levels. Id. at 213.

Learned Helplessness Critique:
Empirical studies strongly contradict claims of helplessness of battered women in situations of domestic abuse. Lee Bowker in Ending the violence: a guidebook based on the experience of 1,000 battered wives finds that women use up to seven coping strategies (including talking, extracting promises, nonviolent threatening, hiding, passive defense, avoidance, and counterviolence) and seek out "help sources," both informal (such as family, in-laws and neighbors) and formal (such as police and social services institutions). Bowker’s conclusions include the assertion that battered women’s problems are "social, not psychological," and had more to do with "the intransigence of their husbands’ penchant for domination and the lack of support from traditional institutions" than to their passivity or helplessness.

Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, Dobash and Dobash and Ellen Fisher in similar studies reach similar conclusions, with Fischer finding thirteen survival strategies. All find that over time, the women rather than becoming more helpless as Walker suggests, increasingly seek out help. Fisher in her work with Gondolf calls the increased pattern of help-seeking the "survivor hypothesis."

New Developments

Battered Woman Syndrome increasingly came to be associated by its pioneer and others with PTSD. Although it is not listed in the diagnostic manual for psychological disorders, the DSM-IV, recent empirical research supports the correlation between characteristics of battered women and PTSD victims.

Recently, a new line of legal attack has been mounted, allowing prosecutors to use Battered Woman Syndrome in court cases against defendants. The use of syndrome testimony has also been expanded for use by men and in cases involving child abuse.

See also:
The Validity and Use of Evidence Concerning Battering and Its Effects in Criminal Trials; Report Responding to Section 40507 of the Violence Against Women Act