The night Marva Wallace shot her husband, he had beaten her, threatened her life, and forced her to perform a sex act while their two-year-old daughter watched. During their year-long marriage, Wallace’s face was always bruised, her eye was perpetually black—“like it was part of my makeup,” she said. Wallace was convicted of murdering her husband in 1985 and sentenced to twentyseven years to life in a California state prison. However, she was freed in 2002 under the provisions of a newly enacted state law. In January 2002 inmates convicted before the battered woman syndrome was allowed as testimony were permitted one last legal avenue to seek a new trial, have the severity of their offense reduced, or even be released with time served. California Superior Court judge David Wesley ordered a new trial for Marva Wallace. During this trial testimony of her battering was presented, and she was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, voluntary manslaughter. Wallace was sentenced to eight years of time already served with no parole required. After seventeen years in prison, Marva Wallace, a battered woman who killed her batterer, was free. Unlike Marva Wallace, most battered women are able to escape their abusers without resorting to violence—battered women rarely become murderers. However, if they do, the admission of expert testimony regarding battered woman syndrome can be a crucial part of their defense and thus an important element in combating violence against women. California courts began admitting expert testimony regarding battered woman syndrome (BWS) for women accused of killing their abusive partners in 1992 (seven years after Wallace was convicted). In 1996 a state Supreme Court ruling allowed acquittals of battered women who could prove they acted in self-defense. However, it was not until the California legislature enacted two laws in the years between 2000 and 2002 that women such as Marva Wallace were given a second chance. One law required the state parole board to review petitions for clemency and determine at the time of a woman’s hearing if she was suffering from battered woman syndrome when she committed the crime. The other law, the one that freed Marva Wallace, allowed women to have testimony of their battering presented as evidence and BWS used in their defense at a new trial.
According to BWS attorney Mira Mihajlovich, testimony concerning BWS is used to support a battered woman’s self-defense claim, not to explain away her actions or give her a special defense that would allow her to “destroy her tormentor at her own discretion.” Jane Parrish, a consultant for the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, argues: “Defendants—including battered women defendants—should be able to introduce all relevant evidence at their trials, including evidence of and expert testimony about their experiences of abuse, that can help the jurors better understand their situations.” Further, Parrish notes that this type of social context for behavior is not unique to the BWS defense. In the case of a barroom brawl, for example, a defendant may show evidence of the victim’s prior threats against him to support the claim that his actions in self-defense were reasonable. Similarly, expert testimony on the nature and effects of battering can help convince a jury that a woman who killed her abusive partner held a reasonable belief that she was in imminent danger and acted in self-defense.
Further, women who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually battered for years may lose all self-confidence and self-respect and even come to doubt their own sanity. While most battered women are not insane, many may suffer from battered woman syndrome. The concept of the battered woman syndrome was originated by Lenore E. Walker and advanced in her books The Battered Woman and The Battered Woman Syndrome. “Battered woman’s syndrome describes a pattern of psychological and behavioral symptoms found in women in battering relationships,” she explains. According to Walker, there are four general characteristics of the syndrome: The battered woman believes the violence is her fault; the battered woman has an inability to place the responsibility for the violence elsewhere; the battered woman fears for her life and/or her children’s lives; and the woman has an irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient. Walker claims that many BWS victims experience “learned helplessness,” a condition brought about by the battered woman’s futile attempts to protect herself from her abuser. In addition, after being subjected to several cycles of violence—where they are battered, try to leave their batterers, and are drawn back into the relationship when the abuser is contrite and loving—many BWS sufferers develop a form of posttraumatic stress disorder and may even experience flashbacks. They may come to believe that killing their abusers is their only way out. While neither the criminal justice system nor the general public agrees that murder is the answer to violence against women, an understanding of the years of abuse a woman has endured provides a proper perspective for evaluating the BWS defense.
While Walker introduced BWS to the public in the mid-1970s, it was not until the 1980s that legal and academic debate began concerning the syndrome. The U.S. legal system was slow to accept BWS as a factor in the self-defense pleas of battered women accused of murdering their batterers. Thus, it was the late 1980s before testimony about a battered woman’s psychological state and the brutality and violence she suffered at the hands of her batterer could be used at her trial. Until that time, women accused of killing their husbands or domestic partners often received harsh sentences because juries were unaware of the circumstances surrounding the crime. Even after BWS was allowed as testimony, activists and legal experts were able to gain clemency for only a few women using BWS as part of their defense.
Then in 1990, outgoing Ohio governor Richard Celeste freed twenty-five women—state prison inmates—who had not had the opportunity to present testimony at their trials about the abuse they had suffered. As the BWS movement advanced, then-governor Donald Schaefer of Maryland commuted the sentences of eight women convicted of murdering their abusive partners in 1991; then-governor William Weld of Massachusetts freed seven of the eight abused petitioners who sought clemency from him in 1992; and then-governor Pete Wilson of California granted three of the thirty-five clemency petitions brought before him in the same year.
By 1995, twelve states had passed statutes allowing expert testimony on battering and its effects. However, while requests for clemency continued into the late 1990s, few of these petitions were granted. The momentum behind granting clemency based on the BWS defense began dissipating. While advocates tried to continue clemency petitioning, there was little interest and little funding available. Recent statistics support the “out of sight, out of mind” viewpoint: Florida has seen no domestic violence clemencies since 1999; no battered women have been freed in New York since 1996; John Engler, governor of Michigan in 2000, denied eight petitions that year.
BWS advocates are hopeful that Marva Wallace’s release from a California prison may signal a positive change in public interest in and legal decisions on BWS. Critics of the BWS defense are less enthusiastic. In his book More Than Victims, Donald Alexander Downs contends that the logic of the battered woman syndrome denies women their reason and will and reinforces their victimization. He argues that battered women often show heroic survival techniques, retaining accurate, reasoned perceptions concerning the actions and intentions of their abusers. Portraying them as lacking reason and will undermines the validity of their rightful self-defense claims and causes them greater harm. Downs promotes a more moderate approach where specific situations relevant to the battered woman’s life and accurate perceptions of danger are taken into account rather than relying on psychological incapacity, the cornerstone of the BWS defense.
Cathy Young, vice president of the Woman’s Freedom Network, is also skeptical of the BWS defense, but for other reasons. She claims that BWS “sounds more like an ideological concoction to justify acts that would not fall under the category of self-defense.” Young argues that the theory that repeated batterings cause a woman to become too passive to escape is unfounded. “The theory [is that] the victim becomes completely passive. It’s an interesting sort of reasoning became it assumes the woman is so passive she can’t leave a relationship, but she’s not too passive to kill.”
BWS is just one of the controversial issues surrounding the complex problem of abused women. Authors in Current Controversies: Violence Against Women explore other aspects of violence against women, including its causes, the effectiveness of current legal and social remedies for it, and its worldwide impact.
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