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Legal Defenses for Battered Women

Women in physically abusive relationships have been known to take extreme measures against their spouses or boyfriends such as by killing them or inflicting serious bodily harm if they felt their own safety or life was at risk. For women in these situations, there are legal defenses they can use if they are charged with a criminal offense.

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a medically recognized condition in which women suffering from mental and emotional abuse remain in the relationship despite a repeated pattern of violence perpetrated by a spouse or boyfriend.

Elements of Battered Woman Syndrome

There are some typical characteristics of BWS, which include the following:

Women who have killed their spouses or boyfriends or inflicted serious injury may use BWS as part of their defense if expert testimony demonstrates that the woman generally has the above symptoms and she has been subjected to a consistent pattern of abuse. It is not a mental disorder, though many experts have classified it as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Many states allow expert testimony on intimate partner battering and its effects to justify self-defense, which would excuse the defendant from criminal liability under certain circumstances, or lessen a charge of murder to manslaughter.

BWS as Self-Defense

The law does not recognize BWS as a legal defense, and its use in court has been criticized by many experts, but evidence of domestic violence and its psychological toll have been used to excuse instances of murder or physical harm to an intimate partner.

For a jury or trier-of-fact to consider evidence of domestic violence as self-defense, the defendant must typically prove the following:

  • The danger of serious bodily harm or death was imminent.
  • The defendant had a reasonable belief she would be harmed.
  • The defendant reasonably responded to the danger.

To prevail, the defendant must demonstrate that she was about to be killed, seriously injured, or be touched in an offensive manner. For instance, if her partner only threatened to kill her or harm her in the morning, the defendant's act in stabbing him while he slept would not qualify as self-defense.

However, if an expert witness testifies that the woman was the victim of repeated and severe abuse by her partner, she may have believed she was acting reasonably when she stabbed him. In this instance, the defendant may be seen as having held an honest but unreasonable belief she was about to be harmed. Her "imperfect self-defense" would minimize her culpability, but not excuse it. If she killed her spouse, the offense could be reduced to manslaughter.