Battered-Woman Syndrome as a Defense for Murder
by Elizabeth Kelly
On February 18, 2008, retired New York City police sergeant Raymond Sheehan stood in his bathroom shaving. Suddenly, he was shot eleven times resulting in his bloody death. The shooter was his wife Barbara Sheehan (Bilefsky, "Wife Who Fired 11 Shots"). Mrs. Sheehan was arrested and tried for the murder of her husband, to which she confessed. The outcome: she walked free (Bilefsky, "Wife Who Fired 11 Shots"). With a confession, how could this be? Mrs. Sheehan was acquitted of Raymond’s murder using the defense of battered-woman syndrome (Goldman, "Wife Shoots Cop Husband 11 Times").
Battered-woman syndrome (BWS) is defined as a mental disorder that develops in victims of domestic violence as a result of serious, long-term abuse ("Battered Women’s Syndrome"). BWS is characterized by the victim’s inability to leave the abusive situation because of a seemingly irrational fear of their abuser, continuing the cycle of abuse ("Battered Women’s Syndrome"). Battered-woman syndrome is relatively new to the psychological community and criticized when used in legal proceedings because of the gravity of a murder charge. But murder is a capital offense, punishable by death, which makes an adequate defense a necessity. Although some believe that BWS reinforces sexist beliefs about women, BWS should be a viable legal defense when abuse sufferers kill their abuser because the sufferer acted in self-defense to escape prolonged abuse, self-defense laws can be discriminatory towards women, and lastly, abused women should be rehabilitated instead of punished by the judicial system.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in four women and one in seven men in the U.S. have suffered severe physical abuse at the hands of a partner (NCADV, "Statistics"). This number almost guarantees that at any given moment, everyone in the U.S. knows a victim or could be the victim of abuse. With this statistic, one would think there would be thousands of abuse reports filed with the police, but this is not the case. In fact, only 29% of women who experienced a form of stalking or physical violence from a partner reported it (The National Domestic Violence Hotline, "Statistics"). But "[e]very year, almost 500 battered woman murder their abusive spouses or partners," (Wright, 76) many claiming self-defense as battered women.
The legal definition of self-defense is "the use of force to protect oneself, one’s family, one’s property from real or threatened attack. Generally, a person is justified in using a reasonable amount of force in self-defense if he or she reasonably believes that the danger of bodily harm is imminent and that force is necessary to avoid this danger" (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1565). This definition includes the concept of "imminent harm" as from an intruder, but many battered women kill their abusers while not in imminent danger. What differs between imminent threat situations as described above and domestic violence situations is that imminent threats typically involve a sudden but rare occurrence of violence as from an intruder. In the case of domestic abuse, there is no intruder because the abuser often lives with the victim, making any time a possible threat. This constant threat should be considered an imminent threat because it is perpetual.
For example, Mary Winkler successfully used BWS as a legal defense after shooting her husband Matthew, while he lay sleeping. She claimed she had been abused for years, even though on that particular night, she was not in imminent danger (Wiehl, "Is 'Battered Woman's Syndrome'" ). Although Winkler, Sheehan, and women in their position are said not to be in imminent danger, they believe they are because of how BWS affects their perception of the abusive situation. Many abused women cannot leave their abusive situation for a multitude of reasons. "[B]attered women frequently suffer other forms of abuse as well, such as humiliation, denial of power, name calling, sexual abuse, threats of violence, and deprivation of food, sleep, heat, shelter and/or money" (Wright, 76). All of these reasons contribute to the sufferer’s helplessness in leaving their abuser and their perception is the only way to defend themselves is to kill their abuser before their abuser kills them. They may not have the resources to actually leave with little access to money, transportation, or contact with friends or family. "They are often trapped by their abusers, who isolate them from family and friends who might otherwise provide them with assistance and support in leaving. They are frequently trapped by poverty, making retreat from the abusive situation a financial impossibility. And they are virtually always trapped by unremitting violence, which not only batters them physically but emotionally as well, making leaving the abusive situation a psychologically unrealistic option" (Wright 76).
In their current state, many self-defense laws are "argued to be discriminatory" against women (Terrance, 924). "Self-defence was based on the notion of two men of roughly equal size and ability engaging in a fistfight. The reality of women’s lives was not considered in the creation this defence, thus making it difficult for women to use it effectively in domestic abuse situations" (Parfett, 65). With laws created with only men in mind, woman are not considered and protected as they should be. The concept of imminent danger discussed above is one example of discriminatory practice. "As such, it has been argued the self-defense doctrine does not take into account the cumulative effects of repeated violence, or the prediction of violence in the future" (Wright, 927). Another example of discriminatory practice is the legal system’s use of an "objective standard of reasonableness" (Wright, 930).
In the law, an objective standard of reasonableness means what a reasonable person would do in that situation. The objective standard of reasonableness does not apply to the sufferers of BWS because their knowledge that danger could arise at any second makes them lash out at a seemingly a random time. If a jury were asked if they, as "reasonable people," feel threatened by a man down the hall in the bathroom shaving, they would answer "no." For Barbara Sheehan the answer was "yes" due to the twenty years of horrific abuse by that same man. By holding battered women to this objective standard of reasonableness, jurors are prevented from understanding the perceptions of the relentlessly abused.
Lastly, these women are victims. For states to criminalize ending their victimhood only protects the abuser and potential abusers. Instead of punishing these women, courts should mandate counseling to aid their rehabilitation. Programs such as Helping to Overcome PTSD through Empowerment (HOPE) have been implemented in domestic abuse shelters to help battered women recover from their abusive situations (Johnson, "Hope for Women with PTSD"). Battered-woman syndrome is listed as a subset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder IV (DSM-IV) ("A PTSD Subcategory: Battered”). Treatments such as HOPE help battered women recover using cognitive behavioral therapy to improve stabilization and safety. A study done by Dawn Johnson, the creator of HOPE, to test the effectiveness of the treatment found that women responded positively toward the principles of HOPE and felt it would help in their rehabilitation (Johnson, “Hope for Women with PTSD"). This positive response toward the therapy shows that battered women can improve their mental state and their lives and should be given the chance to do so. The courts should not punish these women for fighting the criminals the courts are supposed to pursue.
Not everyone is in favor of using BWS as an affirmative defense. While some say the law surrounding domestic abuse and self-defense is biased against women and BWS can overcome that bias, others say battered-woman syndrome is actually anti-female. BWS is argued to reinforce sexism that exists in law by allowing women to be held to a different standard of accountability than men. "It reinforces the stereotype of the passive, helpless woman, who cannot be expected to meet the standards of personal responsibility that would be expected of any man" (Parfett, 74). However, battered-woman syndrome does not hold women to a different standard than men, rather it holds a victim of prolonged abuse to a different standard than someone who has not been psychologically or physically tortured. People who have not been abused can be held to a standard of reasonableness while victims of abuse cannot. BWS does not reinforce stereotypes about women, instead it sheds light on the reality of abuse.
Battered-woman syndrome should be a viable legal defense for abuse-victims who kill their abuser. While attacked as perpetuating stereotypes, this critique is irrelevant because BWS does not compare men and women, rather the abused and the not abused. Battered-woman syndrome should be an admissible legal defense because the sufferer acted in self-defense to escape prolonged abuse, self-defense laws can be discriminatory towards women, and finally, abused women should be rehabilitated instead of punished by the courts. Although Barbara Sheehan was able to use the BWS defense successfully, the Queens District Attorney’s statement after the verdict illustrates the uphill legal battle abused women face. Attorney Richard Brown said, "victims of domestic abuse should seek help through the legal and social services systems, not through violence" (Ali, "New York Court Clears Woman of Murder"). Mr. Brown’s statement exemplifies ignorance when it comes to seeking help from domestic violence, especially the Sheehan case. Ms. Sheehan’s husband was a police officer. How could she have gone to the police when her husband was the police? According to a study conducted by the Police Foundation in Detroit and Kansas City, in half of domestic homicide cases, law enforcement was contacted by the abused woman at least five times before she murdered her abuser (McCray, "When Battered Women Are Punished"). Mr. Brown says women should contact the police to stop the abuse, but clearly contacting the police does not stop the abuse at least half the time. Therefore without the BWS defense, many women like Barbara Sheehan could not receive justice.
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