Case Decides Whether a Battered Spouse Can Argue Imperfect Self-Defense

Battered spouses face difficult challenges when they take actions to defend or protect themselves. Many courts do not understand the psychological difficulties that battered spouses face, and laws are only recently evolving to provide some protections to those who act in self defense to avoid further domestic abuse.

Battered Spouse Charged With Murder 

A recent case involved a wife who testified that she had been beaten with belts, wooden boards, and stabbed, among other horrific attacks from her husband. She testified that she was afraid to leave him for fear that he would follow and harm her. He repeatedly said he would kill her. She said that she was terrified of him every day.

The wife allegedly approached others about killing her husband. She testified she felt that he was going to kill her eventually, so she had to kill him first. The man she hired did kill her husband, and the wife was arrested on murder charges.

Experts Testify as to Wife’s Condition

At trial, the wife presented experts who testified that she suffered from battered spouse syndrome, which is a form of “learned hopelessness.” Other witnesses also explained why women who are battered often do not leave relationships. Battered spouses often can enhance a woman’s perception of danger, and they will often avoid going to police to try to keep the peace, or in hopes that things will get better.

At trial, the court allowed the wife to argue “imperfect self defense,” but gave an instruction to the jury that was an incorrect description of the defense. The wife was convicted, and appealed.

Imperfect Self-Defense

Self-defense requires demonstrating actual, imminent danger. Imperfect self-defense only requires showing a belief of danger, even if the belief was unreasonable. The defendant must believe that retreating from the violence or danger would not be safe. Imperfect self-defense does not result in acquittal, but it can lower a murder charge to manslaughter.

Maryland law does recognize Battered Wife Syndrome. Imperfect self-defense requires a belief of immediate or imminent danger, and that was not the case here, where the husband was killed outside of an occasion in which he was immediately threatening his wife.

Despite the lack of imminent or immediate danger at the time of the killing, the court noted the unique situation involving battered spouses, and declined to hold that a battered spouse has to show that he or she is in immediate danger.

Hiring a Third Party

There are cases that say that a battered spouse cannot use this defense where they hire someone else to kill an abusive spouse. The court here found no reason why hiring someone should alter the analysis; otherwise, it would send a message that women who plan to kill an abuser can never feel they are in imminent danger.

The court overturned the conviction for murder, and sent the case back for a new trial, where the wife could argue imperfect self defense to the jury.

Make sure judges and juries understand the sensitive issues that surround any crime that you are charged with. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss defenses to your case if you are arrested in Maryland.