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The Battered Woman Syndrome And Criminal Law Essay, Research Paper

Peter Vance

Criminal Law

Professor Paul Moke


The Battered Woman Syndrome and Criminal Law

The purpose of this research paper is to prove that criminal law in America has failed to provide a defense that adequately protects women suffering from Battered Women’s Syndrome. Battered Women’s Syndrome, or BWS, is a very complex psychological problem facing criminal courts today and has caused great debate on whether or not it should even be allowed in the courtroom. Although the syndrome has been given more consideration as a warranted issue by society, those who create our laws and control our courtrooms, have not developed a defense that sufficiently protects these women. United States courtrooms, instead of protecting battered women, have put these women on trial and found them guilty of murder.

The research is divided into four parts to better illustrate each individual topic and to provide for a more clear understanding of the material. The first analysis describes Battered Women’s Syndrome and gives background information on its origin. The second part of the research affords case examples of battered women’s trials, the defenses used, and the resulting verdicts. The third segment produces data on newly developed defenses and how they would help women justify or excuse their actions. The final portion of the research presents some of the different views held by supporters and critics of BWS. The conclusion of the research is based only on the data that was collected and provides some personal explanations for the problems facing battered women today.


The theories and explanations for battered women’s behavior started in the late 1970’s as a result of the oppression of women. Feminist movements in the late 1970’s caused great social uproar among legal and political bodies of government in the United States. Many social problems that women faced started to surface and the public began to notice the increasing number of battered and abused women. This new issue led Del Martin to publish Battered Wives in 1976, the first piece written about battered women in the U.S. Although the research on battered women had just begun, many American courtrooms began dealing with these relatively new cases involving women as early as 1977. The famous case of State v. Wanrow (1977), resulted in the Washington State Supreme Court declaring the need for a more gender-based self-defense test. This case led to a greater approval of battered women’s issues among the public and sparked renewed interest in psychological research (Downs pg. 77).

Battered Women’s Syndrome, although originating in part from the oppression of women, was initially developed by psychologists to help explain the behavior of women who were exposed to frequent and continuous abuse. The most highly recognized in the field of BWS, is psychologist Dr. Lenore Walker. Walker has dedicated most of her life to studying battered women and their victimization. Using the psychological theory of “learned helplessness,” Dr. Walker came up with her own hypothesis to explain why battered women behave the way they do (Dubin pg. 9). Walker’s findings resulted in the theory known as the “cycle of violence” (Downs pg. 76). The cycle portrays three distinct phases in which battered women go through with their abusers. Phase One is known as the “tension building phase.” In this phase the woman senses that her partner is becoming increasingly sensitive to very minor disturbances. Phase Two is known as the “explosion phase.” The male partner, in this phase, physically and emotionally abuses the woman. Phase two can last for minutes or hours, depending on the situation. Phase Three is known as the “calm or loving phase,” and is thought to be why most women stay with their abusers. In this phase, the man apologizes repeatedly and promises to never hurt the woman again. After all the phases are complete, the woman believes her partner and the cycle of violence repeats again (Dubin pg. 9).

Dr. Walker’s research paved the way for a wider acceptance of BWS, and brought a new level of clarity to the courtrooms that were dealing with this complex syndrome. In 1979, Dr. Walker produced important testimony in the case of Ibn-Tamas v. U.S. This federal appellate court, located in the District of Columbia, was the first to hear testimony on Battered Women’s Syndrome. The appellate court remanded the case to a lower court, deciding that BWS had to be considered if it could help explain the defendant’s perception of danger. Although the lower court did not admit BWS testimony, the appellate court’s decision provided the first step for accepting the syndrome in future cases (Downs pg. 77).

Dr. Walker released her book The Battered Woman in 1979 and continued to conduct her research on battered women. Although much progress was made during the late 1970’s, BWS was still given little support in the courts during the early 1980’s. In the 1981 case of Buhrle v. Wyoming, the Supreme Court of Wyoming held that the BWS concept was inadmissible in court. The reasons given by the court for the holding were that BWS was not a developed theory at that time, and it attracted female advocates who were interested turning a profit for their services (Downs pg. 77). Even though BWS advocates made great advancements to get the syndrome into the courthouse, they had failed to keep it inside the courtroom.

The research done by psychologists during the 1970’s, and early 1980’s, showed an increasing number of women who suffered from BWS. Although domestic abuse in America was an issue during this time period, it was not given much attention by the government. Once the FBI began to look at their data more closely, they saw a startling number of spousal murders occurring in the U.S. In 1984, spousal abuse caused the deaths of some 1,300 women. The number rose to 1,530 in 1993, and showed a substantial increase in women being murdered by their husbands’ (Downs pgs. 53-54). Statistical data has proven that more women are being battered and killed by their husbands every year. Since domestic abuse is on the rise, many women are choosing to defend themselves from continuous and unlawful abuse by their husband’s.


The women in the following three cases, although different in many aspects, used the battered women’s syndrome theory at some part in their trials. These cases were chosen and analyzed to show the different affects that battered women’s syndrome has on the verdicts rendered by our present court system. The resulting verdicts in these cases depend upon the defendant’s actions, expert testimony, and the courts’ instruction to the jury on defenses.

Case #1- State v. VanSickle

On November 14, 1994, the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas found the defendant Tracy VanSickle guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a firearm violation, and abuse of a corpse. VanSickle was sentenced to serve seven to twenty-five years for the manslaughter charge, three years for the firearm violation, and one and one-half years for the abuse of a corpse. The issues appealed by the defendant pertain to the burden of establishing oneself as a battered woman, while proving the elements of self-defense. Appellant argues that the trial court erred, because of the testimony supporting her actions and the courts initial finding that she was a battered woman. The 10th district Ohio Appellate Court reviewed the case (State v. VanSickle pg. 1).

Dr. Lenore Walker gave expert testimony at the trial court stating that the appellant did suffer from the Battered Woman Syndrome. Dr. Walker also testified that the appellant possessed a reasonable belief of great bodily harm at the time of the shooting. The appellant was found to be a battered woman by the trial court but was not found to be suffering from the actual syndrome. The appellant’s actions of trying to conceal the body, and other witness testimony claiming that the she had planned to kill her husband before hand, caused the appellate court to find numerous inconsistencies in the testimony given at the trial court. The appellate court also found that the appellant and Dr. Walker were the only ones supporting the claim that the defendant had acted out of an honest belief of imminent danger. The appellate court stated that the jury did not error by giving credibility to the opposing witnesses and affirmed the trial court’s decision (State v. VanSickle pgs. 1-3).

Even though Dr. Walker testified that the defendant suffered from BWS and that she was acting in a reasonable belief of imminent danger, the jury was not convinced. The appellate court’s decision shows how difficult battered women’s syndrome is to prove in a court of law.

Case #2- State v. Williams

On February 13, 1992, Deena Williams shot and killed the man she had been living with for some time. Williams was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and a firearm specification. She was sentenced to serve five to twenty-five years for voluntary manslaughter and three years for the firearm specification. The issues appealed by the defendant deal with the evidence of the testimony given and the retreat doctrine rule that pertains to self-defense. The 8th district Ohio Appellate Court reviewed the case (State v. Williams pg. 1).

At the trial, the Cuyahoga Coroner Dr. Heather Raaf testified that the deceased, Emillios Andre Green, died from a gunshot wound to the mouth and had traces of marijuana in his blood and urine. The appellant’s brother testified that his sister and the deceased were involved in a relationship, and that the relationship was violent. He testified that he had witnessed the deceased slap, punch, and kick his sister on numerous occasions. Appellant testified that her mother was sent to prison when she was eleven and that she was sexually abused as a child. Appellant further testified that she had been involved a previous abusive relationship that almost ended in her death. Psychologist Dr. Cynthia Carter testified that the appellant was a battered woman and that the deceased would not be afraid of the appellant if she had a weapon. Dr. Carter further testified that the appellant had just received the worst beating ever from the deceased and that she would not have used the gun unless absolutely necessary (State v. Williams pgs. 2-5).

The appellant argued that the guilty verdict of voluntary manslaughter was against the weight of the evidence when the defense proved self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence. The appellate court did not agree with the appellant’s assignment of error. However, the appellate court stated that the jury might have come to a different conclusion if instructed on the retreat doctrine pertaining to self-defense. The judgement was reversed and remanded for a new trial (State v. Williams pgs. 5-6).

Even though the appellate court reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision, it was not done for the right reasons. The testimony given by the appellant, immediate family, and experts should have clearly persuaded the jury to find Williams not guilty. The appellate court’s decision shows how ineffective expert testimony on battered women’s syndrome can be in our present court system.

Case #3- State v. Thomas

On September 15, 1993, Teresa Thomas was indicted for killing her boyfriend Jerry

Flowers. At the trial, the defendant claimed that she had shot Flowers in self-defense and that she suffered from the battered woman syndrome. Thomas was found guilty of murder with a firearm violation on December 20, 1993. The Ohio Appellate Court’s 8th district reviewed and affirmed the appeal. Appellant argues that the trial court failed to instruct the jury on the retreat doctrine and that the court failed to properly instruct the jury on the battered woman syndrome. The Ohio Supreme Court reviewed the case (State v. Thomas pg. 1).

Appellant testified that she had a very violent relationship with Flowers. She told the court that Flowers had forced her to quit her job, sent her to the emergency room for a shoulder injury, and gave her an ovarian cyst from punching her in the stomach. Appellant also testified that Flowers had denied her food for three to four days at a time, forced her to clean up his defecated clothing, and forced her to have sex without her consent. A few weeks prior to the shooting, Flowers had repeatedly threatened the appellant’s life and forced her to have anal intercourse against her wishes. Appellant used BWS testimony to further support her claim of self-defense. Dr. Jill Bley, a renowned psychologist, testified that the appellant did suffer from the battered woman syndrome and that she reasonably believed she was in imminent danger at the time of the shooting (State v. Thomas pg. 1).

In relation to the first argument by the appellant, the Supreme Court of Ohio found that there is no duty to retreat from one’s own home when attacked by a cohabitant. The court decided that when considering the issue of human life, there is no distinction between the cohabitant and the intruder. The Ohio Supreme Court then reviewed the appellant’s second argument and found that the trial court did not error in failing to provide the jury with a detailed definition of the battered woman syndrome. The court stated that this instruction would have set up a separate defense for the accused and would not allow the jury to determine if the appellant met the requirements for the second element of self-defense (State v. Thomas pgs. 3-5).

Thomas, like many other battered women, fought to protect herself in her own home from imminent danger. The appellate court’s decision helps portray the many problems that battered women face when using the self-defense justification. The decision also shows the need for a more gender-based defense when dealing with abused women. In society today, women are fighting back against their violent abusers and the problem doesn’t seem to be going away. If the self-defense justification is not going to protect the women in our society, then we must examine the defenses that have proven to be effective.


The most important part of battered women’s cases is the defense. Most women who are indicted for murdering their husband’s chose to use the self-defense justification. The case examples in the segment above clearly proved that this defense is ineffective when used by battered women. Since the self-defense justification has failed to serve abused woman, we must investigate some of the new defenses that are presently being implemented. The defenses that were analyzed are excessive self-defense and psychological self-defense. These defenses, if adopted by the U.S., could help many battered women escape culpability and rebuild their lives.

The Country of Germany, unlike the U.S., has taken the necessary steps to unsure that battered women have a fair chance to defend themselves. Germany undertook this reform to help battered women, and the courts, better understand the imminency and excessive force elements of self-defense. The first major problem facing abused women is that most of these women can not adequately defend themselves without a weapon. Most battered women use some type of weapon to protect themselves from their attackers and are blamed for using excessive force. The second problem facing abused women is that the danger they perceive is not imminent. Many women who attack their abusers do not do so when the danger is immediately present. These very important elements must be proven if a woman is to be acquitted of the charges (Dubin pgs. 11-12).

In order to deal with the excessive force problem, Germany has created a statute that allows excessive force under certain conditions. The Strafgesetzbuch states that, “[I]f the actor exceeds the limits of self-defense because of confusion, fear, or fright [s]he is not to be punished” (as qtd. in Dubin pg. 12). This statute allows the woman to be completely acquitted. Although the law requires the woman to be in situation that would justify the use of self-defense, it does not punish her for perceiving the situation wrong and overreacting. This defense, if adopted by the U.S., would allow abused women who kill their attackers to be acquitted (Dubin pg. 12).

Germany has also helped battered women by providing a more liberal view on the imminent danger element of self-defense. The German legislature has come to recognize that imminent danger need not be immediate to pose a substantial threat. This logical assertion has brought Germany to take a deeper look at what imminent danger means and how it is applied. German courts have concluded that a perceived danger only needs to be intermittent, or ongoing, in order for it to be justifiable. Germany’s liberal stance on the imminent danger element of self-defense is quite logical, because many abused women kill their attackers while they are asleep. The German method of viewing imminent danger would be an ideal tool for battered women, because they are abused continuously over an extended period of time (Dubin pg. 14).

Many social scientists have studied the weaknesses of the self-defense justification and

formulated personal theories about what the defense should entail. In 1987, C.P. Ewing introduced the psychological self-defense model. Ewing suggests that this defense is necessary, because battered women face psychological danger from their abusers. This defense would examine both the physical and psychological dangers that a battered woman has endured. If this model was adopted by the legislature it would allow a person to use reasonable force when an immediate danger threatens a person’s mental state. Ewing stated, “the law needs to recognize that the value of human life lies not in mere physical existence but rather in the capacity to experience that existence in a psychological, meaningful, and rewarding fashion” (as qtd. in Hilton pg. 268).

The psychological self-defense model was tested by social scientists in 1990. One hundred and ninety-six undergraduate psychology students were given a real case scenario and asked to act as mock jurors. The research proved that when the mock jury was offered a psychological self-defense option nearly half of the participants would acquit the defendant (Hilton pg. 273). This research shows that jurors will respond more leniently when offered new alternatives for judging battered women’s behavior. Many social scientists have come to support abused women and the battered women’s syndrome, but there are still many critics who are not convinced.


It is not the theory behind battered women’s syndrome that has critics upset but rather the misuse of the syndrome by many women to evade culpability. The syndrome itself is based on a sound theory and backed by scientific research. Psychologists, and other social scientists, have brought aid to women who truly suffer from domestic violence in America, but they have also been criticized for supporting women who have not been abused.

There is dyer need for a closer examination of the negative aspects that have arisen out of the battered women’s syndrome. Some critics hold that battered women’s syndrome is closely related to victimology and may cause people to undermine the principles that the criminal law is based upon. Although this assumption is well warranted, it would not affect the majority of battered women’s cases in America. Critics have even blamed the present state of battered women’s syndrome on the women who wrongfully use the theory to support their defenses. They believe that the women who are suffering from battered women’s syndrome are loosing support, because of those who are not justified in using the concept (Hilton pg. 138).

Other critics of BWS have singled out certain psychologists and social scientists. Dr. Walker, the renowned psychologist mentioned above, has been heavily criticized for representing nearly any woman in need of expert testimony. Dr. Walker stated, “It is clear from the rest of her story that Paul had been battering her by ignoring her and by working late” (as qtd. in Hilton pg. 147). Statements like these undermine the BWS theory and give people false notions to what the syndrome is actually about. These critics also include battered women advocates who are unhappy with the way battered women are being portrayed. Battered woman advocate Patti Seeger stated, “What I don’t like about BWS is that it is tied to ‘learned helplessness.’ I disagree totally with this theory. Rather than being helpless, battered women adopt survival skills” (as qtd. in Hilton pg. 138). This quote, although surprising, shows the frustration and tension that is going on between BWS advocates. Maybe the reason why those in society are unwilling to accept the BWS theory is because those who support it can not even agree on what the concept should entail.


After conducting an extensive review on battered women’s syndrome, I have concluded

that the acceptance of this syndrome by our criminal law depends upon three issues. The first issue pertains to how society views this complex syndrome. Many people claim that they know all about BWS and that it is just another way for women to avoid culpability. Others believe that BWS is a defense in itself. BWS has been seriously affected, because of the general part of our society that has not yet been educated on the facts of the syndrome. Those who possess the knowledge surrounding the syndrome need to clarify society’s misguided conceptions, or BWS will never get the support it really deserves. If people learn the facts and support the syndrome, then the American government is more likely to take legislative action.

The second problem concerning the acceptance of BWS by the criminal law is the present self-defense justification. This justification is deeply rooted in English Common Law and causes great debate among legislative officials. Self-defense, although adequate for most, has failed to represent battered women in America. Completely changing this defense is out of the question, but what about modifying the defense so that it would also look at body size, strength, and general physical ability? A man who weighs 200 lbs. has a clear advantage over his 130 lbs. wife. These physical characteristics must be considered when explaining self-defense, because they would help compare the two opposing forces.

The third problem that has halted the success of BWS is that people are unwilling to stop domestic violence in their community. If residents within a community are aware of domestic violence problems then they need to take immediate action and stop the violence. The police, and other social service agencies, can only do so much to diffuse the problem. Domestic violence will only decline when American citizens get involved with the domestic abuse problem.

Downs, Donald Alexander. More Than Victims: Battered Women, The Syndrome Society, and The Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1996.

Dubin, Danielle R. “A Women’s Cry for Help: Why the United States Should Apply

Germany’s Model of Self-defense for the Battered Women.” Pgs. 1-16. 3-5-99.


Hilton, N Zoe, ed. Legal Responses to Wife Assault: Current Trends and Evaluations. Newbury Park: SAGE Pub. Inc. 1993.

State v. Thomas. Case No. 95-1837-95-1938. OH. Super. Ct. 1997. Lexis-Nexis.

State v. VanSickle. Case No. 94APA12-1728. OH. App. Ct. 10th dist. 1995. Lexis-Nexis.

State v. Williams. Case No. 66669. OH. App. Ct. 8th dist. 1995. Lexis-Nexis.

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