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Is “Battered Women’s Syndrome” a Defense in a Criminal Case?

Battered Women’s Syndrome – Fact or Fiction? 


It is no secret that domestic abuse remains a largely gendered crime. It is estimated that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Some courts look to the “battered women’s syndrome” standard in expert testimony. Battered Women’s Syndrome is most often discussed when a woman murders her abusive partner. However, it can also be used to explain irrational behavior that stems from a fear of abuse.


Dr. Lenore Walker is largely credited with creating the term in the 1970s to describe the psychological damage and behavior traits that are common in women who are repetitively abused by a partner. Currently, there is a circuit split in the federal courts regarding the issue of whether expert testimony explaining a psychological phenomenon known as Battered Women’s Syndrome, be admissible in trial. 


In the case of United States v. Dingwall, Mary Dingwall was convicted of three counts of robbery and three counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence. She admitted to the robberies but claims she committed them under duress, out of fear that her boyfriend Aaron Stanley, would abuse her. A defense of duress must have two elements, reasonably fear of imminent death or serious injury, and the ab of reasonable, legal alternatives to committing the crime. 


Dingwall attempted to admit the expert testimony of Dr. Darald Hanusa. This report diagnosed Dingwall with PTSD and Battered Woman Syndrome as a result of her extreme case of relationship abuse. A woman’s attempt to decrease, minimize, and stop the violence can include criminal or illegal behaviors. An abused woman will take whatever action that has the highest predictability in stopping the violence against her. 


The Seventh Circuit found that a reasonable jury could find that Dingwall’s abuser’s threats could cause a reasonable person to fear imminent violence. The Seventh Circuit concluded that Dingwall should not have been denied the opportunity to offer evidence about the psychological effects of abusing an ordinarily reasonable person, and an ordinary person under the same abuse may act irrationally. 


The Seventh Circuit’s decision widened the already existing circuit split when it comes to the issue of whether expert testimony regarding Battered Women’s Syndrome is allowed in the court. 


Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuit 


The Sixth Circuit heard a similar case in Dando v. Yukinds. In that case, the victim helped her boyfriend commit a string of armed robberies in one day. Her boyfriend made repeated threats to kill her. The court held that the history of abuse and threats made the victim a sufferer of Battered Woman Syndrome. Under this analysis, a reasonable person in the same situation may have also committed the same crimes under a threat of extreme violence. 


The D.C. Circuit addressed this same question. In the case of United States v. Nwoye, the defendant was convicted of extortion after her attorney did not present evidence of Battered Women’s Syndrome at trial. The lack of expert testimony resulted in the court’s refusal to give the jury an instruction of duress. The D.C. Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and held that an expert testimony of Battered Women’s Syndrome. It held that an expert testimony would have helped a jury determine whether the defendant’s actions were reasonable given the circumstances.


In the Ninth Circuit, the court held in United States v. Lopez, that expert testimony on Battered Women’s Syndrome serves an important role in helping to dispel many of the misconceptions regarding women in abusive relationships. In that case, Lopez purchased a gun with a fake ID after her boyfriend threatened her and her family. She was charged with federal crimes for lying to buy a firearm.


Tenth and Fifth Circuits 


On the other hand, the Fifth and Tenth Circuits have upheld the exclusion of expert testimony on battered woman’s syndrome, stating that it is not relevant to the objective reasonableness of a defendant. These courts are suspicious of Battered Women’s Syndrome and call the standard “subjective.”


Although the admission of expert testimony regarding Battered Women’s Syndrome is not a guarantee that these women will be acquitted, it is a step in the right direction to protect victims of abuse. The Supreme Court has yet to resolve this issue, so for now, the split is here to stay. 


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