Whether battered spouse syndrome should be a defense in criminal cases has been a controversial issue for many years. Since 1991, a Maryland statute has made such evidence admissible to prove the defendant’s motive or state of mind at the time of the alleged crime. Whether this defense may be available even where the battered spouse hired someone to kill her husband was addressed by a divided Maryland Court of Appeals this week in a case called Karla Louise Porter v. State of Maryland.
Judge Adkins’ opinion for the 4-3 majority indicates a long history of physical and verbal abuse by the defendant’s husband toward her. The defendant testified at trial that eventually she concluded that she knew her husband was going to kill her and she wanted to kill him first. She approached several, eventually hiring someone to kill him at their place of business, with the defendant calling the police to make it sound like a robbery gone bad. She was arrested and charged with first degree murder. At trial, in addition to testifying to the history of abuse, the defendant called two experts who testified that she was suffering from battered woman syndrome including major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
The judge gave a jury instruction on “imperfect self- defense,” but the jury convicted the defendant of first degree murder, and conspiracy and solicitation to commit murder, and she was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years. The intermediate appellate court upheld the conviction, but the majority of the Court of Appeals reversed the case for a new trial. The majority opinion notes that “perfect self-defense” applies where the defendant has reason- able grounds to believe herself to be in “apparent imminent or immediate danger of death or serious bodily harm,” and the defendantwas not the aggressor and used no more force than was necessary. “Imperfect” self-defends requires only that the accused actually believed herself to be in such danger even if the belief is unreasonable, and that she actually believed the force used was necessary and re- treat was not an option.
The State admitted that the trial judge improperly told the jury imperfect self-defense required proof that no more force than was necessary was used, but argued that the defense should not have applied anyway to a contract killing so the instruction was harmless error. The majority of the Court of Appeals found for the first time in Maryland that imperfect self-defense could apply even in a murder for hire case, and since the instruction affected the verdict the error was not harmless. The majority found that “imminent” threat of harm did not have to mean a close relationship.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.