Battered woman syndrome  

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The battered woman defense also referred to as battered woman syndrome is a defense used in court that the person accused of an assault / murder was suffering from battered person syndrome at the material time. Because the defense is most commonly used by women, it is usually characterised in court as battered woman syndrome or battered wife syndrome. There is currently no medical classification to support the existence of this "syndrome" in the sense used by lawyers, though it has historically been invoked in court systems. Although the condition is not gender-specific, the admission of evidence regarding battered woman syndrome as relevant the defense of self-defense is commonly understood as a response by some jurisdictions to perceived gender-bias in the criminal law. Thus, this is a reference to any person who, because of constant and severe domestic violence usually involving physical abuse by a partner, may become depressed and/or unable to take any independent action that would allow him or her to escape the abuse. The condition explains why abused people may not seek assistance from others, fight their abuser, or leave the abusive situation. Sufferers may have low self-esteem, and are often led to believe that the abuse is their fault. Such persons may refuse to press charges against their abuser, or refuse all offers of help, perhaps even becoming aggressive or abusive to others who attempt to offer assistance. This has been problematic because there is no consensus in the medical profession that such abuse results in a mental condition severe enough to excuse alleged offenders. Nevertheless, the law makes reference to a psychological condition, even though neither the DSM nor the ICD medical classification guides as currently drafted includes the syndrome in the sense used by lawyers.

The law

The courts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States have accepted the extensive and growing body of research showing that battered partners can use force to defend themselves and sometimes kill their abusers because of the abusive and sometimes life-threatening situation in which they find themselves, acting in the firm belief that there is no other way than to kill for self-preservation. The courts have recognized that this evidence may support a variety of defenses to a charge of murder or to mitigate the sentence if convicted of lesser offenses. Again, battered woman syndrome is not a legal defense, but may legally constitute:

  • Self-defense when using a reasonable and proportionate degree of violence in response to the abuse might appear the most appropriate defense but, until recently, it almost never succeeded. Research in 1996 in England found no case in which a battered woman successfully pleaded self-defense (see Noonan at p198). After analysing 239 appellate decisions on trials of women who killed in self-defense in the U.S., Maguigan (1991) argues that self-defence is gender biased.
  • provocation;
  • insanity (usually within the meaning of the M'Naghten Rules); and
  • diminished responsibility.

However, in 1994, as part of the Violence against Women Act, the United States Congress ordered an investigation into the role of battered woman syndrome expert testimony in the courts to determine its validity and usefulness. In 1997, they published the report of their investigation, titled The Validity and Use of Evidence Concerning Battering and Its Effects in Criminal Trials. “The federal report ultimately rejected all terminology related to the battered woman syndrome…noting that these terms were ‘no longer useful or appropriate’” (Rothenberg “Social Change” 782).

Instead of using the term "battered woman", the terminology “battering and its effects” became acceptable. The decision to change this terminology was based on a changing body of research indicating there is more than one pattern to battering and a more inclusive definition was necessary to more accurately represent the realities of domestic violence.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Battered woman syndrome" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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