Battered Woman Syndrome: What Happens When Victims Kill

Battered Woman Syndrome is a condition that only came to be seen as a valid legal defense during the 1970s. Since then, the law has allowed it to be used by defense in situations where battered wives kill their abusive husbands or, in the case of Hedda Nusbaum (see below), a child in the relationship dies as a result of physical violence.

“The threat has to be imminent,” says Amy Lorenz-Moser, a lawyer who does pro bono work for the Missouri Battered Women’s Clemency Coalition. “It doesn’t always take into account that the threat might not have been imminent, but [the woman] knew it was imminent in that [she] had been abused by this person all these years, and [her partner] got that look in his eyes.”

Does the defense’s use of the Battered Woman Syndrome always grant the victims immunity to charges of murder? No.

There is danger too in using the Battered Woman Syndrome defense, mainly because the accused must admit to the murder. She must also prove that she acted in self-defense because of a threat happening at that very moment of murder.

“The problem is that you’ve admitted to the killing, you’ve taken that away, and in that way it’s proving the self-defense part,” says Lorenz-Moser. “You can prove abuse with photos…but if you don’t prove self-defense, you still lose. It comes down to showing immediate fear.”

Battered Woman Syndrome these days if more often referred to as Battered Person Syndrome. Men are also at risk of domestic violence, either at the hands of their female partners or within a homosexual relationship.

Historically, battered persons have both benefited from the defense and they have also lost their cases and ended up in jail. Here are two vastly different examples:

Tanya Mitchell’s Case

Mitchell (right, on featured image) plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and like many women who kill an intimate partner, she received the maximum sentence—in her case, 15 years.

She says her husband tortured her and offered her up to members of his motorcycle club, and watched as they gang-raped her. He then beat her afterwards for letting the rape happen. He tried to rip her toenails off with pliers, and she endured games of Russian roulette, where he held a gun to her forehead and she was unsure whether she’d live or die.

Even though she claimed the Battered Woman Syndrome defense for killing her husband during one of his violent outbursts, she went to prison.

Hedda Nusbaum’s Case

In this situation, Hedda Nusbaum (left on featured image) was battered and so was the child she cared for with her abuser Joel Steinberg. The Lisa Steinberg Case made national headlines, largely due to Nusbaum’s broken nose and disheveled appearance.

Lisa Steinberg died as a result of the domestic violence inflicted on her by Joel Steinberg, but Nusbaum, who failed to call an ambulance or take the little girl to the hospital for 10 hours while she lay bleeding and unresponsive, did not go to jail. Nusbaum was acquitted of manslaughter due to the Battered Woman Syndrome defense.

According to the laws of New York, equal blame would’ve normally been assigned to both parents. Only Joel Steinberg received a prison sentence. Instead of jailtime, the judge ordered Nusbaum to go to a psychiatric hospital.

Signs & Symptoms

Battered Person Syndrome (BPS) usually manifests itself as PTSD, The symptoms: (a) re-experiencing the battering as if it were recurring even when it is not, (b) attempts to avoid the psychological impact of battering by avoiding activities, people, and emotions, (c) hyperarousal, hypervigilance, or paranoia (d) disrupted interpersonal relationships, (e) body image distortion or other bodily concerns/obsessions, and (f) sexuality and intimacy issues.[7]

Additionally, repeated cycles of violence and reconciliation can result in the following beliefs and attitudes:[8]

  • The abused thinks that the violence was his or her fault.
  • The abused has an inability to place the responsibility for the violence elsewhere.
  • The abused fears for her/his life, and/or, the lives of loved ones whom the abuser might or has threatened to harm (e.g., children-in-common, close relatives or friends).
  • The abused has an irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.
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