The role of battered wife syndrome in criminal cases

Last year, a woman called law enforcement to her apartment and told them that she thought she had killed her ex-boyfriend. According to the Press Republican, the 65-year-old man was found beaten and stabbed to death inside the woman’s home. She was arrested and charged with murder and assault. The woman told law enforcement that the victim repeatedly beat her over the course of their yearlong relationship, and the two remained friends after they ended their romance.

Here in Minnesota and across the country, victims of relationship abuse may act in ways that confuse people, such as keeping contact with the abuser or remaining in a relationship despite continued attacks. When these victims seek to protect themselves by extraordinary physical means, they may need to prove in court that the act was done in self-defense.

Battered wife syndrome

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one in three women and one in four men will experience some form of physical violence during their lifetime. This type of crime disproportionately affects women, the organization reports, and can lead to physical and psychological issues, resulting in a condition often called battered wife syndrome.

This affliction is usually considered a type of post-traumatic stress disorder and can cause victims of abuse to experience the following:

  • Memory loss in which victims cannot remember specific details about attacks
  • Cognitive disorders that can lead to victims disassociating themselves from their bodies
  • A “flight” response mode, which causes the victim to either physically or mentally flee the situation
  • A “fight” response mode, which prompts abused people to lash out at their attackers in order to defend themselves

Battered wife syndrome can cause women to stay in relationships and even seemingly forgive abusers or exhibit other behaviors that their loved ones cannot understand.

Fighting back

According to the American Judges Association, women who suffer from this condition may have trouble putting together a criminal defense if they harm or kill their abusers. Often, prosecutors will question why a woman remained in a relationship or friendship with her abuser, as is the case with the woman who killed her ex-boyfriend.

While battered wife syndrome, as part of PTSD, is not considered a legal defense, it may be used as a means to justify self-defense if the violence was reasonable and proportionate to the aggression. The condition has been found relevant to establishing the credibility of a defendant in a murder case. Invoking this defense often requires calling in expert witnesses who can detail the effects of domestic violence and how battered wife syndrome plays a role in self-defense. In these circumstances, it is possible for victims of abuse to secure lesser sentences, as charges against them are often reduced.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.
Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions:
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