Battered Woman’s Syndrome

This paper looks at the history of men battering their wives. The physical and mental strain placed on the victim is examined, as is the behavior which many women who face these beatings experience. This paper examines reasons why a woman would fight back using deadly force and will show the successful use of the battered woman syndrome as a defense in court. The battered woman syndrome will be viewed as a legitimate cause for self defense and justifiable homicide of the victim’s spouse.

Throughout United States history, women have been controlled, beaten and verbally abused by their spouses. This is mainly due to the fact that from the time this country was conceived until the early

19th century, women were viewed by the U.S. legal system as the property of their husbands. The law was written that, by marriage, a man and a woman were recognized as one person in the eyes of the law. The law even went as far as to allow the husband to give his wife “moderate correction”. This meant that he could strike his wife in order to restrain her as long as he used nothing wider than his thumb. This came to be known as the “Rule of Thumb”. Since these days of barbaric unions between men and women, the United States government has passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment clearly states that “… [n]o state shall deny equal protection of the laws to any person.” This statement means that the government cannot take away rights protected by the Constitution based on an individual’s race, religion, or sex. As a result of this Amendment being passed, the United States Supreme Court has found many laws to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the “Rule of Thumb”. (Muraskin, 2007. pp.5-6)

Today, domestic violence laws prevent a man from beating his spouse without any consequences. This is assuming that the wife decides to call the police, which often times she will not because of a fear of embarrassment. Therefore, this leads to many women being beaten continuously to the point where the physical and psychological damaged caused can lead to a violent outburst towards their husband, which then results in his murder. In such cases where a woman is beaten to the point of becoming capable of murdering her abusive spouse, the battered woman syndrome can become a very useful tool for the defense counsel in order to gain an acquittal on the grounds that the woman killed out of self defense, thus making it a justifiable homicide. (CRJ30 class notes)

First, it is important to take a look into exactly how battering can occur. The reason men batter their wives has been a mystery to society for the better part of the last half century. Social learning theory suggests reasons as to why there are men who will use force and violence against their spouses. Violent behavior will likely not stop once it has been initiated and rewarded, and some victims tend to have great difficulty in either stopping the violence or ending the relationship with their abusive spouse. (Pagelow, 1981. pp.29.) Social learning theory is defined as “an extension of differential-association and reinforcement theories, holding that social sources, or people with whom one interacts, are the reinforcers that result in the learning of nondeviant and deviant behavior. The type of behavior that is most frequently and consistently reinforced by the people will be the one most often exhibited.” (Pagelow, 1981. pp.35.)

A basic proposition of the social learning theory is that reinforcement which follows behavior can increase the probability that this behavior will be repeated. Another proposition of this theory is that intermittently reinforced behavior is the most difficult to extinguish. The theory points out that the two major parts of the learning process are reinforcement and punishment. The emphasis is focused more on the reinforcement than the punishment. This is due to the fact that punishment has been shown to have relatively short-term effects on extinguishing behavior while immediate reinforcement will outweigh the effects of delayed punishment in controlling behavior. (Pagelow, 1981. pp.36.)

However, for one to understand the battered woman syndrome, one must familiarize themselves with the kind of physical and mental strain that a battered woman goes through, as well as the psychological trauma which is placed upon the abused. Many critics of the battered woman syndrome blame the victim rather than the abuser. Critics believe that a woman who is beaten by her spouse can simply just call the police in order to stop the violence. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Abused women are often embarrassed by these encounters with their spouse to the point that they would not want to tell anyone, not even the police. This silence about the abuse leads many women to learn how to live with the violence rather wanting to eradicate it from their lives.

Many critics of the battered woman syndrome claim that the women who use this defense are pathological individuals. Critics and prosecution alike see these women as having an individual problem rather than seeing domestic violence as a social issue that could affect anyone. To these people, an abused woman is a rare occurrence and women who are abused are mentally ill. The assumption that an abused woman is “sick” is based on the belief that she is a masochistic and she, as well as the abuser, receives a certain satisfaction from the violence. (Pagelow, 1981. pp. 54-55.)

Harvard Law Professor Alan M. Dershowitz believes that a battered woman does not have to take matters into her own hands but rather “has the option of either leaving or calling the police”. (Reutter, 2005) This is simply not true. An abused woman, who does nothing to stop the abuse, is often stuck in a state of learned helplessness. This means that she believes that she can not control the abuse and she recognizes herself to be completely helpless to it.

Learned helplessness consists of three essential components. The first of these components is called contingency. Contingency deals with the objective relationship between a person’s actions and the outcome which they experience. In this case, the actions of the abuser make the abused feel like she is less than her husband and therefore becomes accustomed to the situation. The second component to learned helplessness is known as cognition. This has to do with the way in which the woman perceives, explains, and extrapolates the contingency. There are several steps involved with the cognition. First, she must apprehend the contingency. A person experiencing learned helplessness may view the contingency either accurately or as the complete opposite of what it really is. In the case of domestic violence, the woman perceives the abuse as being somehow her fault because her spouse makes her feel as if she has done something to deserve the beating, when in actuality she has done nothing wrong and he is the one who is in fact wrong. Next, she explains what she has perceived. If she perceives that the abuse takes place because of her wrongdoing, then she will hold herself responsible as the cause for her beating. Finally, she uses her perception and explanation to form an expectation about the future. For example, if her husband beats her every time she has not finished preparing dinner by 6 o’clock, she will then assume to be beaten every time dinner is still in the over when he arrives home. Because of this false perception, she is left open to future abuse to no fault of her own. (Peterson, Maier, Seligman, 1993. pp.8.)

Gelles (1976) explained his theory as to why women stay with their batterer in an article he published. His ideas in this article received wide publicity since that time. In the article, Gelles stated, “Three major factors influence the actions of abused wives. The less severe and less frequent the violence, the more a wife remains with her husband. Secondly, the more a wife was struck as a child by her parents, the more likely she is to remain with her abusive husband. Lastly, the fewer resources a wife has and the less power she has, the more likely she is to stay with her violent husband. In addition, external constraint influences the actions of abused wives.” (Pagelow, 1981. pp. 145)

Of course, for any good battered woman defense to be brought into a murder trial, a battered woman needs to set herself up with the right lawyer to present her case to the judge. As attorney Michael G. Dowd stated about his experience with defending a battered woman,
[“Before a battered woman could fight the battle for the hearts and minds of a jury she needed an advocate to present her story. Like a screenplay that needs a good director and the backing of a producer, a battered woman’s self defense case needed the vision of a lawyer to structure the case and a judge willing to let it be presented to the jury. An attorney or judge encumbered by prejudices about battered women would be an unlikely candidate to advance a defense that contradicted fundamental opinions about the existing social order. Even the unbiased might deny the reality of societal prejudice to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the violence these beliefs tolerated. Obviously the denial of such prejudice renders us powerless to correct an injustice that we cannot admit exists. Too little attention has been paid to the cases of women that were never presented in court, not because of a biased or ignorant judge but as the product of inaction or ignorance of the attorney charged with her defense. These injustices surface, if at all, as the woman languishes in jail and becomes aware of what could have been done for her case.“] (Dowd, 1999.)

It could be easy for any judge or lawyer to confuse the battered woman syndrome with being a disease because of the word “syndrome”. The word “syndrome” suggests that there is something wrong with the woman. If that were the case, then she would not be the victim. In fact, it is merely a syndrome that results from the battering itself. Once periodic beatings take place, there is a sense of imminent danger, and this is a key fact in any self defense case. Imminent does not refer to a specific period of time, however. This fear of danger is that the woman believes she could be beaten at any moment or anywhere. This belief in imminent danger further helps the self defense case. For example, if a woman is beaten repeatedly for years on end, she may feel the need to defend herself even at times when the abuse is not occurring at that exact moment. If she were to kill her husband in his sleep, a jury or a judge may say that it was unprovoked. However, the battered woman’s syndrome suggests that it is self defense because she is always in a state of fear from imminent danger. There is not a single moment of her life where she feels safe, yet she does not run to the police or tell anyone because she believes there is something wrong with her. (Dowd, 1999.) In the 1985 decision for People v. Torres, the judge wrote,
[“. . . It is the defendant’s state of mind and sense of fear which is critical to a justification defense. In this regard, proof of violent acts previously committed by the victim against the defendant as well as any evidence that the defendant was aware of specific prior violent acts by the victim upon third parties is admissible as bearing upon the reasonableness of the defendant’s apprehension of danger at the time of the encounter.”]

The battered woman’s defense has caught the spotlight ever since it was first introduced in Ibn-Tamas v. United States. Since that time there have been hundreds of successful cases involving this defense. There are certain aspects to these cases, however, that differ significantly from abuse cases that do not result in the death of the batterer. First, cases involving deadly retaliation by the abused often contain alcohol abuse, death threats, threats with weapons, more severe beatings and sexual violence towards the woman or other family members. The actually homicide often takes place after an unusual incident, meaning that something was done by the male that was not in his usual repertoire of violence. He could do things like threaten the lives of their children, which would then lead to the woman saying “he’s never done that before”. This could prove to be a turning point because now the abuser has gone to other forms of abuse other than what she has learned to live with. (Easteal, 1992. pp.3)

Still with all of these studies done, there are many misconceptions and false beliefs about the battered woman’s syndrome. To combat these myths, a good defense team will enlist the help of an expert witness. Without the help of expert witnesses it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to win a case of self-defense. The expert witnesses are able to paint a picture for the jury of exactly what a battered woman’s mind is like in order to help understand a battered woman’s thought process. It is extremely important for a judge to allow the testimony of an expert witness into these cases. In the instances where a judge has not allowed those testimonies, there have been numerous successful appeals of the original decision. (Easteal, 1992. pp. 5)

Dr. Easteal sites one specific case in her article (1992) where the battered women defense was successful in gaining an acquittal for self defense.
[“The Diaz Case 1985 (Blackman 1989, pp. 184-6): This case is particularly interesting since it exemplifies the increasing use of a self-defense plea in situations where, in traditional terms, there is no immediate sense of danger since the batterer is asleep (or passed out) at the time of the killing. Madelyn’s husband, a police officer, had committed numerous acts of violence, including sexual, upon her during their marriage. These included taking her out in the car in winter, making her undress and inviting a stranger to rape her in the backseat while he watched.

The day preceding the killing, he had threatened their six-month-old daughter, holding a revolver at the baby’s head. He had never done this before. The next morning as he still slept, Madelyn left with the three children to go grocery shopping. Having forgotten money, she returned and opened the drawer where the money was kept. She picked up the gun that lay there and hearing a flashback of his voice as he had held the gun to the baby, she fired it twice at his sleeping body. Then she left, went shopping and bought items that he normally liked. Initially, she told investigators that the apartment had been broken into; three days later, she remembered what she had done and confessed. Madelyn was indicted for murder in the second degree, the highest murder charge in New York State.

Ultimately, she was acquitted. The jury ‘extended the definition of self-defense to include the circumstances Madelyn described’. The jury, with the help of expert witnesses, was able to see that the threat of violence was psychologically imminent.”] (Easteal, 1992. pp. 6)

The Diaz case is a perfect example of the battered woman defense at its full potential. The jury was able to view the imminent danger through the eyes of a battered woman rather than through the eyes of the average reasonable American. Therefore, the case for imminent danger was established. Secondly, this is a fantastic example of expert witnesses basically winning a case for the defense council.

In a world where domestic violence often goes unnoticed by outsiders, it is important for society to keep an open mind to those who suffer from the battered woman’s syndrome. When this case is presented as self-defense, it can often be seen as a farce and be met with many myths and misconceptions by judges, juries, and prosecution teams alike.

However, with the help of expert witnesses to establish the meaning of imminent danger to a battered woman, juries can more likely be swayed to the side of the defense. There is no doubt that the battering of women is a serious issue that can often time result in a deadly backlash, and unfortunately it is often that the batterer had what was coming to him. Society can only expect a woman to take so much abuse with a closed mouth before she finally snaps, and often times homicide is the only answer. However, the battered woman syndrome can prove to be a very reasonable cause for a justifiable homicide by reason of self-defense.


Dowd, M.G. (1999). The “Battered Woman’s Defense” Its History and Future. Retrieved April 9th, 2007, from Find Law.
Easteal, Dr. P. (1992). Battered Women Who Kill: A Plea of Self- Defense. Retrieved April 9th, 2007, from JSTOR.
Muraskin, R. (2007). It’s a Crime: Women and Justice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Pagelow, M.D. (1981). Woman-Battering: Victims and Their Experiences. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Peterson, C., Maier, S.F., Seligman, M.E.P. (1993). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Ages of Personal Control. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reutter, M. (2005). Battered Women Who Kill in Non-Beating Situation Have Self Defense Right. Retrieved April 9th, 2007, from New Bureau.