When Women Kill Their Partners
WHEN WOMEN KILL THEIR PARTNERS
Women do not kill their intimate partners nearly as often as men do. The National Crime Victimization Surveys estimate that intimate partner homicide accounts for just 4% of murders of men but about one-third of the murders of women.
However, when women do kill, they are most likely to kill an intimate partner or other family member. In Women Offenders, a special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (Washington, DC: Office of Justice Programs, NCJ 175688, 1999), researchers stated that of the sixty thousand slayings committed by women between 1976 and 1997, just over 60% were committed against a nonstranger.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Supplementary Homicide Report, in 2002, 7% of all known murder offenders were female. Their victims were often their spouses or intimate partners. A 1994 Department of Justice study on "murder in families" analyzed ten thousand cases and determined that women made up more 41% of those charged in familial murders, but only 10.5% of those charged with murder overall.
In 2002, 388 male homicide victims (3.1%) and 1,202 female homicide victims (31.9%) were killed by an intimate partner. There are regional variations in the rates of intimate partner homicide. When the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) analyzed Federal Bureau of Investigation data, southern and western states were found to have the highest rates of intimate partner homicide. Figure 9.1 shows the geographic variation of intimate partner homicide among white females by state, and Figure 9.2 displays the rates of intimate partner homicide by state for black females. Centers for Disease Control researchers also reported in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries (vol. 50, no. SS03, October 12, 2001) that the risk of intimate partner homicide increases with population size—rates in metropolitan areas with more than 250,000 persons are two to three times higher than rates in cities with fewer than ten thousand residents.
Figure 9.3 shows that the number of males killed by intimate partners dropped by 71.4% between 1976 and 2002. Researchers and advocates for battered women attribute this dramatic decline to the widespread availability of support services for women, including shelters, crisis counseling, hotlines, and legal measures such as protection and restraining orders. These services offer abused women options for escaping violence and abuse other than taking their partners' lives. Other factors that may have contributed to the decline are the increased ease of obtaining divorce and the generally improved economic conditions for women.
SPOUSAL MURDER DEFENDANTS
In the report Spouse Murder Defendants in Large Urban Counties (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995), researchers Patrick A. Langan and John W. Dawson reported on their examination and analysis of 540 spouse homicide cases in the nation's seventy-five largest counties—59% of the killers were husbands and 41% were wives. Even though Langan and Dawson analyzed data from crimes and court decisions that took place more than a decade ago, they explained that "[The Bureau of Justice Statistics] knows from long experience with surveying courts that changes in case processing are quite gradual. The report's results are, therefore, likely to be applicable today."
Nearly all the wives used weapons—95% of female suspects used a gun or knife. Men used those weapons only 69% of the time. Not surprisingly, in view of their generally larger size, strength, and body weight, husbands are far more likely than wives to strangle or beat their spouses to death.
Langan and Dawson also found that, proportionally, twice as many husbands (20%) killed in fits of jealousy. In addition, husbands who killed their wives were more likely to be substance abusers than wives who killed their husbands. Nearly one-third (31%) of the husbands had a history of drug abuse, compared to 9% of the wives. Almost one-quarter (22%) of the husbands were using drugs at the time of the crime, and two-thirds, or 66%, were drinking alcohol, compared to 3% and 37%, respectively, for the women. Another later study funded by the National Institute of Justice confirmed the high likelihood that when husbands murder or attempt to murder their wives, they are also abusing alcohol and drugs. Phyllis Sharps, Jacquelyn C. Campbell, Doris Campbell, Faye Gary, and Daniel Webster reported their findings in "Risky Mix: Drinking, Drug Use, and Homicide" (National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 250, November 2003).
Wives on Trial
Although women in Langan and Dawson's study were about as likely as men to be prosecuted, stand trial, or plead guilty to killing their spouses, female defendants were less likely to serve jail time. In part, this finding resulted from a larger percentage of husbands being convicted (41%) than wives (31%). Researchers found women were seven times more likely than men to be acquitted at trial.
Female defendants were also less likely to serve life sentences for killing their spouses than were male defendants. Convicted men were sentenced to prison terms more than twice as long as those received by convicted women. About half as many wives as husbands received life sentences (8% compared to 15%). Among wives sentenced to prison, only 15% received a sentence of twenty
years or more, compared to 43% of the husbands. Wives in general received considerably shorter prison sentences than husbands, six years versus 16.5 years.
In 44% of wife defendant cases, there was evidence that the wife had acted in response to a violent attack from her husband at the time of the killing. In contrast, just 10% of the husbands claimed that their victims had assaulted them at the time of the murder. The researchers observed that "[i]n many instances in which wives were charged with killing their husbands, the husbands had assaulted the wife, and the wife then killed in self-defense. That might explain why wives had a lower conviction rate than did husbands." With strong legal defense and detailed documentation of abuse, many women are able to successfully argue that after suffering years of mental and/or physical abuse at the hands of their abusers, they suffer from what is known as battered woman syndrome and killed in self-defense. In fact, battered woman syndrome has become a recognized defense in courtrooms throughout the country. At least some scholars, however, advocate relying on evidence of "battering and its effects" rather than testimony of a "syndrome" that reduces the issues facing battered women to a psychological problem and does not fit every victim's circumstances. Kathleen J. Ferraro explores the issue in her study, "The Words Change, But the Melody Lingers: The Persistence of the Battered Woman Syndrome in Criminal Cases Involving Battered Women" (Violence against Women, vol. 9, no. 1, January 2003).
FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE THE MURDER OF HUSBANDS BY WIVES
In one of the first studies of wives who murdered their abusive partners, When Battered Women Kill (New York:
The Free Press, 1987), Angela Browne of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire compared forty-two women charged with murdering or seriously injuring their spouses with 205 abused women who had not killed their husbands. Wondering why some women were unable to see that their partners were dangerously violent, she found that some of the personal characteristics of men inclined to violent, abusive behavior were the same qualities that initially attracted the women to them. For example, a woman might initially perceive a man who always wanted to know where she had been as intensely romantic. Only later, when she was unable to act or move without her partner's supervision, might she realize that she had become a virtual prisoner of her controlling mate.
Browne asserted that the intensity of these early relationships further serves to isolate the women. Women may be denied contact with family and friends to the extent that a casual conversation with a neighbor may provoke abuse. A woman may come to see her partner's behavior as extremely jealous and possessive. This pathological protectiveness is communicated by an abuser's belief that his partner belongs exclusively to him and is a possession to be used as he pleases. Browne found that many abusive husbands feared or believed their wives were sexually promiscuous. These mistaken beliefs frequently prompted extreme sexual assault.
Browne's findings suggest a link between the frequency of marital rape and homicide potential. More than 75% of women who had committed homicide claimed they were forced to have sexual intercourse with their husbands, compared to 59% in the group of women who had not killed their husbands. Some 39% of the former group had been raped more than twenty times, compared to 13% of the latter group. One woman Browne interviewed said, "It was as though he wanted to annihilate me…; as though he wanted to tear me apart from the inside out and simply leave nothing there."
According to Raquel Kennedy Bergin in Wife Rape (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), about 60% of the women who are raped in their marriages report that their husbands have threatened to kill them. Three of the women in her study reported that they were finally able to break free of their abusive relationships when they realized that they would kill their husbands if they did not leave. About half the sample confessed to thinking about killing their partners but did not believe they could actually follow through with their murderous plans.
Murder and Suicide Threats
Men murdered by their spouses had often threatened to kill their partners. In Browne's study, 83% of the men killed by their wives had threatened to kill someone, compared to 59% of the men whose wives did not kill them. Men killed by their wives had used guns to frighten their spouses and were sometimes killed with their own weapons. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of this group also threatened to kill themselves. Many of the threats were made when women tried to leave the relationship or when the men were depressed. Browne questioned whether the suicide threats were genuine expressions of wishes to die or whether they were used to manipulate the women in efforts to make them feel guilty and prevent them from leaving.
Studies have found that battered women often contemplate suicide because they see no other escape from the cycle of abuse, and that as many as a third of women who do commit suicide each year have been abused by a male partner. Neil Websdale explored the subject in "Reviewing Domestic Violence Deaths" (National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 250, November 2003). One woman in Browne's study expressed her wish to escape abuse when she decided not to seek help after a severe beating because she thought "[death] might not be so bad; like passing out only you never get beaten again."
Drug Use and Physical Abuse
When Browne compared abused women who had murdered their spouses and women who had not, she found that in the homicide group, 29% of the men had used drugs daily or almost daily versus only 7.5% of the men in the other group. There were even sharper differences in reported alcohol use. Twice as many (80%) of the men killed by their wives were reportedly drunk every day, compared with 40% of the abusive men not killed by their spouses.
Lenore Walker, a renowned expert in domestic violence who is often hired as an expert witness in homicide cases, researches and testifies in cases where women have killed their husbands after they pass out from drinking. She argued that women, convinced the beatings will resume when the men awake, take the opportunity to murder their abusers. Autopsies show that these victims had blood alcohol levels of up to three times greater than the measure normally defined as intoxicated.
In addition, 92% of the men killed by their wives had been arrested for crimes ranging from drunk driving to murder, compared with 77% of the abusive men not killed by their wives. A common feature of the marriages where the wife killed her spouse was that the wife did not know anything about her husband's criminal past, including his arrest records.
LEGAL ISSUES SURROUNDING BATTERED WOMEN WHO KILL
In legal cases involving battered women who kill their abusers, the defendants often admit to the murder and reveal a history of physical abuse. The charge is usually first- or second-degree murder, which is murder with malicious intent either with or without premeditation. The outcome of these trials depends on three main issues: self-defense, equal force, and imminent versus immediate danger. Expert witnesses are crucial in an abused woman's trial to explain how these issues are different for cases involving battered women than for other homicide cases.
Women often plead that they killed in self-defense, a plea that requires proof that the woman used such force as was necessary to avoid imminent bodily harm. Self-defense was originally intended to cover unexpected attacks by strangers and did not take into account a past history of abuse or a woman's fear of renewed violence. Traditionally applied, a self-defense plea does not exonerate a woman who kills during a lull in the violence, for example, when the drunken abuser passes out.
Many observers feel that self-defense law is problematic, inadequate, and/or not appropriate for use in self-defense cases of battered women, according to Diane Follingstad et al. in "The Impact of Elements of Self-Defense and Objective versus Subjective Instructions on Jurors'Verdicts for Battered Women Defendants" (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 12, no. 5, 1997). Traditionally, self-defense permits an individual to use physical force when he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to counteract imminent or immediate danger of serious bodily harm. Furthermore, a person must use only a reasonable amount of force to stop the attack and cannot be the one who provoked the encounter or initiated the violence. To justify the use of reciprocal deadly force, most jurisdictions require that the defendant reasonably believes the attacker is using or is about to use deadly force. Some jurisdictions further require that before resorting to deadly force, the defendant must make an effort to retreat, although this is not required in most courts if the attack took place in the defendant's own home.
Advocates of battered women have succeeded in convincing many courts to accept a subjective standard of determining whether a battered woman who killed her husband was protecting her own life. This concession allows the court to judge the circumstances of the crime in relation to the special needs of battered women and not according to the strict definition of "self-defense." This looser definition is especially important for women who killed during a lull in the violence, because a strict interpretation of "imminent danger" does not provide legal justification for their actions.
A subjective standard asks a jury to understand what is reasonable for a battered woman. Susannah Marie Bennett, in "Ending the Continuous Reign of Terror: Sleeping Husbands, Battered Wives, and the Right of Self-Defense" (Wake Forest Law Review, 1989), explained the critical difference as viewing the appearance of danger subjectively, from the perspective of one who saw and knew what the defendant saw and knew. An objective standard still governs whether a reasonable person, in similar circumstances and with the same perceptions, would also have acted in self-defense. This is the "hybrid" definition of self-defense that supporters of battered women encourage the courts to adopt.
According to Gena Rachel Hatcher in "The Gendered Nature of Battered Woman Syndrome: Why Gender Neutrality Does not Mean Equality," in order for this hybrid definition to work, the court must first be subjective in understanding the woman's circumstances. Next, it must be objective in deciding that, given the situation, she truly did act in a reasonable manner (New York University Annual Survey of American Law, 2003). Courts have already accepted the notion that self-defense does not require perfect judgment in a violent situation, only reasonableness. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Brown v. United States (1921), said "[d]etached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife." Battered women and their advocates have asked the courts to revise their definitions of imminent danger and proportionate force in cases involving domestic violence.
Self-defense permits the use of equal force, which is defined as the least amount of force necessary to prevent imminent bodily harm or death. Women, however, who are generally physically weaker than men and who know the kind of physical damage their batterers can inflict, may justifiably feel that they are protecting their lives when shooting unarmed men. In State v. Wanrow (1977), the Washington Supreme Court ruled that it was permissible to instruct the jury that the objective standard of self-defense does not always apply.
Yvonne Wanrow was sitting up at night fearful that a male neighbor, who she thought had molested the child in her care, was going to make good on his threats to break into the house where she was staying. When the large, intoxicated man did enter, Wanrow, who was incapacitated with a broken leg, shot him. The court ruled, "The respondent was entitled to have the jury consider her actions in the light of her own perception of the situation, including those perceptions that were the product of our nation's long and unfortunate history of sex-discrimination…. Until such time as the effects of that history are eradicated, care must be taken to assure that our self-defense instructions afford women the right to have their conduct judged in light of the individual physical handicaps that are the product of sex discrimination. To fail to do so is to deny the right of the individual woman involved to trial by the same rules that are applicable to male defendants."
Imminent versus Immediate Danger
Traditionally, self-defense required that the danger be immediate, meaning that the danger was present at the very moment the decision to respond was made, in order to justify the use of force, as noted by Kimberly Kessler Ferzan in "Defending Imminence: From Battered Women to Iraq" (Arizona Law Review, 46, Summer 2004). Accepting imminent danger, or danger that is about to occur, as justification for action permits the jury to understand the motivations and dynamics of a battered woman's behavior. A history of abuse may explain why a defendant might react to the threat of violence more quickly than a stranger would in the same circumstances. In Wanrow, the Washington Supreme Court found that when the jury considered a woman's actions based on immediate danger, it was required to focus only on the time immediately before the defendant's actions. "It is clear that the jury is entitled to consider all of the circumstances surrounding the incident in determining whether [the] defendant had reasonable grounds to believe grievous bodily harm was about to be inflicted," the court wrote.
Lenore Walker observed in Terrifying Love: Why Battered Women Kill and How Society Responds (New York: Harper and Row, 1989) that it is often hard for a jury to understand how a woman can be continuously afraid of a man with whom she lives. Walker insisted, however, that her own research and that of others had repeatedly demonstrated that battered women know their abusers' potential for violence and live in constant fear, even when they have developed coping skills that enable them to continue living with their violent partners. Fully 85% of the four hundred battered women Walker interviewed felt they could or would be killed at some time by their abusers.
Juries and Expert Testimony
Whether a woman will be convicted depends largely on the jury's attitude, or the judge's disposition when it is not a jury trial, and the amount of background and personal history of abuse that the judge or jury is permitted to hear. Juries that have not heard expert witnesses present the battered woman defense are often unsympathetic to women who kill their abusive partners.
Regina Schuller et al. in "Jurors' Decisions in Trials of Battered Women Who Kill: The Role of Prior Beliefs and Expert Testimony" (Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 24, no. 4, 1994) found that jurors who learned about battered woman syndrome from expert testimony were more likely to believe the defendant feared for her life, that she was in danger, and that she was trapped in the abusive relationship. Equipped with knowledge and understanding of battering and its effects, jurors handed down fewer murder convictions than were issued by a control group of jurors who were not given this specialized information.
Using mock jury trials, Schuller et al. examined whether a potential juror's belief in a "just world" would influence how he or she receives and responds to expert testimony. A strong belief in a just world would lead a juror to reason that a person deserves his or her fate. Persons holding strong "just world" beliefs would decide that when a woman is abused, she must be responsible for the beating in some way or she must deserve and share responsibility for the outcome. The study found that women who did not accept the concept of a just world were especially receptive to, and influenced by, expert testimony. Men, however, independent of their beliefs, were generally more resistant to the influence of expert witnesses.
When judges opt not to permit expert testimony, it is frequently because they do not wish the expert to influence jurors about the specific circumstances and details of the case. In some states, an expert witness is only permitted to speak generally about battering and its effects and may not comment about the individual woman on trial. On the other hand, some states permit the expert to express an opinion on the ultimate question of whether the battered defendant's behavior was reasonable in view of her circumstances.
a case study: state v. norman. In State v. Norman (1989), the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned a lower court's verdict of voluntary manslaughter for a woman who fatally shot her husband while he was sleeping, because the original court had failed to instruct the jury on self-defense. In the final appeal, however, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed that opinion and reaffirmed the validity of the first court's traditional objective standard of self-defense, resulting in a conviction of voluntary manslaughter. Kimberly Kessler Ferzan discusses the case in "Defending Imminence: From Battered Women to Iraq," cited above.
The defendant, Judy Norman, had been continually abused during her twenty-five-year marriage to her husband, J. T. He had beaten her with every available weapon, forced her into prostitution, and required her to eat dog food from a bowl on the floor. He had thrown her down stairs when she was pregnant with their youngest child, causing her to give birth prematurely, and often threatened to "cut her heart out" or "cut her breast off." Dr. William Tyson, an expert witness at the trial, characterized her situation as "torture, degradation, and reduction to an animal level of existence where all behavior was marked purely by survival."
On this final occasion, J. T. was arrested for drunk driving. After his release from jail, he came home to vent his anger on his wife, beating her repeatedly over thirty-six hours. In the past, Judy had gone to Mental Health Services and the Department of Social Services for help, but her husband had always come to get her, reaffirming her belief that her husband was invulnerable to the law. In her mind, the only choices left were to kill him or to die.
The defense relied heavily on expert testimony about battered woman syndrome and the theory of learned helplessness. The court ruled that reasonable, deadly fear is not only theoretically possible, but also real, and may have been present in Judy's mind. Susannah Marie Bennett, in "Ending the Continuous Reign of Terror" (cited above), applauded the court of appeals decision to accept the special circumstances of battered women, asserting that, by recognizing self-defense as a concern, the court validated the view that a defendant may reasonably fear imminent harm from a sleeping person.
But Bennett argued that the court of appeals was wrong to claim that "therefore, a battered spouse who kills a passive abuser can satisfy the traditional elements of self-defense under an objective analysis." Bennett pointed out that the imminency requirement may stop the woman from employing the right of self-defense at the one time it would work: when the abuser is passive. Instead, the rule directs the woman to wait until she could be completely defenseless—during or just prior to a battering incident—before she can justifiably save her life. Thus, the court essentially recognized that the requirement of imminent danger may be met by events outside of an actual attack or a threat of attack, but only in the special circumstances of battered spouses. This recognition, Bennett contended, is a monumental exception to the general principle of self-defense.
By accepting this definition of self-defense, the court cannot claim to have used an objective standard. Bennett suggested that the reason the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the court of appeals decision was because the latter court may have tried to mask its move to subjectivity and that it would have been better off to admit that it was relaxing its standard in order to accommodate killings that do not objectively meet traditional self-defense criteria.
Bennett concluded that instead of adhering to outdated concepts and a rigid interpretation of self-defense, the court of appeals made an honest effort to take up the legal aspects of spousal abuse. The court demonstrated significant insight by recognizing the plight of victims of battering—a predicament created by the deadly combination of battering and its effects and strict judicial adherence to standards that were never intended to address such situations. Accordingly, the court ruled with a compassionate and insightful opinion that is part of a growing trend in self-defense law.
On July 7, 1989, North Carolina Governor James G. Martin commuted Judy Norman's six-year manslaughter sentence to time she had already served.
SHOULD THE LAW BE CHANGED?
Some observers believe that by acknowledging the differences between men and women and accepting different conduct from each, the courts are moving perilously closer to providing two standards of justice. A woman can be permitted to use a gun in self-defense in cases where a man cannot, and she may need the extra help of an expert witness to explain her motivation to a jury. Is this a step in the right direction for the courts? Are the courts only now incorporating changes needed to resolve and adjudicate previously unconsidered situations? Have women been discriminated against and is society only now righting the wrongs?
Those opposed to changing the law claim that many domestic disputes are more complicated than battered women's advocates portray. For example, Sonny Burmeister, the president of the Georgia Council for Children's Rights, an organization that lobbies for equal treatment for men in child custody cases, believes that women are trying to write a customized set of laws, depicting men as violent and women as victims, thereby absolving women from the social and legal consequences of their actions.
Some observers object to revising the law, claiming that these modifications will permit women to kill their husbands indiscriminately. By allowing such change, they argue, the law is sending a message to society that revenge is acceptable, even permitted, under the law.
Holly Maguigan, a defense attorney and law professor, argued in "Battered Women and Self-Defense: Myths and Misconceptions in Current Reform Proposals" (University of Pennsylvania Law Review, vol. 140, no. 2, 1991) that the law does not need to be changed, but rather, needs to be properly applied. According to Maguigan, the effort to change the law is based on two incorrect assumptions. The first is that juries convict battered women for killing in nonconfrontational circumstances, such as during a lull in the violence or when a man is sleeping. The second assumption is that the current definitions of self-defense apply only to men of roughly equal size and power. Some insist that the law ignores the social context of the battered woman's actions. Maguigan countered that reformers have not carefully examined the law as it stands and that when the reformers explain what they mean by "a fair trial" they are referring to a not-guilty verdict.
Studies show that a large majority of women kill their abusers during a confrontation and not during a break in the attack. Angela Browne in her When Battered Women Kill (cited above) estimated that at least 70% of women who have killed their abusers did so during a confrontation. Other researchers have estimated that as many as 90% of such women kill under confrontational circumstances. Maguigan examined 223 cases and found that 75% involved confrontations, 8% involved "sleepingman" situations, and 4% were contract killings. In 8% of the cases, the defendant was the aggressor in a lull in the violence, and in the remaining 5% there was not enough background in the court opinions to establish the accurate details of the events.
Maguigan asserted that nearly every jurisdiction decides questions of equal force on a case-by-case basis and does not ban a woman from using a weapon against an unarmed man. Courts have recognized for years that use of a weapon by a battered woman against an unarmed man does not necessarily constitute disproportionate force. In Kress v. State (1940), the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a woman who shot her husband in the midst of an attack. "Where a great bodily violence is being inflicted or threatened upon a person by one much stronger and heavier, with such determined energy that the person assaulted may reasonably apprehend death or great bodily injury, he is justifiable in using a deadly weapon," the court wrote.
Furthermore, the law in every state permits a history of past abuse to be presented in court. Cases of abused women who have killed their partners and who claimed self-defense are not new. They date back at least to 1902, long before Walker conceived of the battered woman syndrome. Maguigan showed that jurisdictions that accept imminent danger as opposed to immediate danger are more likely to present the history of abuse to the jury to explain the reasonableness of the woman's conduct.
A Misapplication of the Law
Maguigan's analysis revealed that convictions of battered women usually result from a misapplication of the law, not from the unjust structure of the law. She found that 40% of the guilty verdicts were later reversed in higher courts, a rate significantly higher than the national average rate of reversal of 8.5% in homicide cases in general. Problems arose when trial court judges interpreted the women's acts as vigilantism and did not permit instruction to the jury on self-defense or presentation of history-of-abuse evidence. In State v. Branchal (1984), the trial judge commented that the court "did not want to condone spousal retaliation for past violence."
Maguigan concluded that in most jurisdictions it is the failure of the trial judges to apply general standards of self-defense, not the legal definition of self-defense, that prevents battered women from obtaining fair trials. Neither current proposals for legal redefinition nor creation of separate standards will remedy problems resulting from a refusal to apply the law. If legal exceptions are made, there is a danger that trial judges will apply the law too strictly, possibly excluding some women. A trial judge in Missouri, for example, made a decision (subsequently reversed on appeal) that testimony on battered woman syndrome did not apply to a defendant because she was not legally married to the abuser.
Maguigan cautioned that when the law defines a special group of people, it eliminates others, and in this situation it could deny expert witnesses or special instructions on self-defense because an individual defendant's case did not meet the strict definition of a battered woman. She suggested that flexibility and general terms are more beneficial, citing the proposed rule of evidence for the New York State courts as an example: "If scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education, may testify."
According to Maguigan, the laws to provide women with fair trials are already in place. What is needed is for jurisdictions to understand and accept the legal precedents of imminent rather than immediate danger and to allow evidence of a history of battering and expert testimony to explain the reasonableness of a battered woman's reaction.
california law frees battered wife who killed her husband. On October 25, 2002, Marva Wallace, a forty-four-year-old high school graduate and mother of two, was freed after serving seventeen years in state prison for the murder of her abusive husband. Wallace was the first person released under a California law enacted in January 2002 aimed at inmates convicted prior to 1992, for whom expert testimony on battered woman syndrome was not presented at trial. The law allows these inmates to file writs of habeas corpus (protection against illegal imprisonment) asking that convictions be over-turned or sentences reduced and enabling them to petition for new trials.
In Wallace's case, her husband began to abuse her just two months into her marriage. According to court documents, her husband's beatings often left her bloodied and bruised. He refused to allow Wallace to work, isolated her from her family, and would not give her money to support her children. A substance abuser, Wallace's husband had previously abused his first wife.
On the day she killed him, Wallace asked her husband if she could take her two-year-old daughter to visit the girl's grandmother. Her husband became angry, slapped her, and forced her to perform oral sex in front of her daughter. Shortly after these events, she shot him with a gun that was in their home.
Although friends and family testified at the trial that Wallace had been abused, there was no expert witness to present the effects of abuse on Wallace's mental state. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-seven years to life in state prison.
In an article that appeared in the October 26, 2002, Los Angeles Times, David S. Wesley, the judge who over-turned the murder conviction, acknowledged that Wallace had been a battered wife and that she was convicted in 1985 when much less was known and understood about intimate partner violence. Judge Wesley ordered a new trial in the case and released Wallace on her own recognizance. During the new trial, testimony of her battering and its effects was presented, and she was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, voluntary manslaughter. She was sentenced to eight years of time already served.