35 years ago, the TV movie The Burning Bed brought spousal abuse and domestic violence into the front of the public consciousness. The famous Farrah Fawcett film and a 1980 book of the same name were based on a 1970s case where a Michigan woman doused a bed in gasoline and set it on fire with her husband still sleeping on it. A jury eventually found the woman was temporarily insane at the time, after having heard evidence of the husband’s alleged 13 years of abusing the wife.
Since 1991, Maryland law has allowed defendants to submit evidence of the domestic abuse they’ve suffered as part of their defense in a criminal trial. Despite some of the terminology used related to this issue (“Battered Woman’s Syndrome”, “Battered Spouse Syndrome,” etc.,) you do not, in Maryland, have to be a spouse or be a woman to use this evidence in your defense. If you are on trial and you were the victim of abuse, especially if your abuser was the victim of your alleged crime, then it is vitally important that you have a knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney on your side to give you the maximum protection and best defense possible.
A woman recently on trial here in Maryland alleged that she was one of those abuse victims. The deceased, M.H., was the accused’s boyfriend. During a fight between the two, the woman yelled at the man to stop putting his hands on her, then went to the kitchen and got a knife. Eventually, the man received a stab wound to the chest, which punctured his aorta and killed him.
At her trial, the woman included a “Battered Spouse” argument in her defense. That argument, which isn’t a defense in itself but is part of an accused’s assertion of self-defense, says that an accused person is not criminally responsible for a victim’s injuries because she was suffering from the effects of the syndrome and sincerely believed that she was acting in self-defense.
Maryland law requires a jury finding of ‘repeated physical and psychological abuse’…
Maryland doesn’t require a defendant be a woman or be married to present this proof, but Maryland law does require proof that the accused was the “victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse.” The key question in this woman’s case, however, was “repeated physical and psychological abuse” by whom? This woman had extensive evidence, including medical expert testimony, that pointed toward her having suffered a great deal of physical abuse across several past spousal/co-habitation relationships, with that past abuse having been the source of her syndrome. Her proof didn’t necessarily prove that M.H. abused her repeatedly.
The trial court, however, instructed the jury that, in order to consider the defendant’s Battered Spouse argument, they first had to find that the accused had suffered repeated abuse at the hands of the victim, M.H. The jury eventually convicted the woman of first-degree manslaughter.
… but that abuse doesn’t necessarily have to have been committed by your current partner
In a significant victory for abused partners on trial in Maryland, the Court of Special Appeals ruled that the jury instruction was incorrect and that this woman was entitled to a new trial. The law actually allows juries to consider abuse a defendant suffered at the hands of past partners/spouses, what role that past abuse may have played in the accused’s state of mind and whether, in light of the defendant’s abuse (past and present,) the victim may have engaged in conduct that triggered the defendant’s syndrome.
The law did not require that the jury find that the victim have inflicted repeated abuse on the defendant before the jury could consider the accused’s Battered Spouse Syndrome argument. The judge’s instructions in this case potentially could have given the jury the incorrect impression that they did have to reach such a determination before looking into the defendant’s Battered Spouse evidence. When a jury instruction on a vital part of the case is unclear to this degree, then that lack of clarity requires that the defendant get a new trial.
Hopefully, you’ll never have to experience violence or abuse committed by an intimate partner, and never have to use violence to defend yourself. If, however, you find yourself in this circumstance (or something similar) and facing charges, you have legal options for your defense. Contact skilled assault defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi to put the power of this office on your side and get the complete and aggressive defense you deserve. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.