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Since 1991, a Maryland statute has made evidence of “Battered Spouse Syndrome” admissible to prove the defendant’s motive or state of mind at the time of a alleged crime of violence against her abuser. Such evidence may be important for the trier of fact in determining if self-defense is a viable defense to the killing of an abuser. What a jury should be instructed in such cases was explored in an opinion issued last week by Maryland’s intermediate appellate court in a case called Latoya Bonte Elzey v. State of Maryland.

The opinion indicates that Elzey was arguing with her longtime boyfriend in the living room of a home where they were staying, during which she yelled at him not to put his hands on her. She then went into the kitchen and returned holding a knife. The defendant testified that she was holding the knife in front of her when the victim lunged at her and the knife severed his aorta, resulting in his death. The primary issue at trial was self-defense.

Maryland law uses the term “Battered Spouse Syndrome” and defines it as a “psychological condition of a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse by a spouse, former spouse, cohabitant or former cohabitant,” which is also recognized in the medical and scientific community as ‘Battered Woman’s Syndrome.’

The law provides that when a defendant raises the issue of Battered Spouse Syndrome as a result of a past course of conduct by the victim of the crime(s) for which the defendant has been charged, the Court may admit into evidence for the purpose of explaining the defendant’s motive or state of mind, 1) evidence of repeated abuse by the victim, and/or 2) expert testimony that she suffers from this syndrome.  The trial judge allowed both types of evidence, but the jury convicted the defendant of manslaughter and assault, and she appealed.

The decisive appellate issue was whether the trial judge erred in instructing the jury that it must determine first if the defendant was the victim of repeated abuse by her boyfriend, if so whether she suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome, and if she did have the condition consider it in weighting her motive or state of mind.

The appellate Court held that trial judge had mistakenly confused the statutory standard to admit evidence of Battered Spouse Syndrome with how the jury should weigh the evidence that the Court had already admitted. The jury was not required to make any preliminary factual finding before considering the syndrome as it weighed the state of mind of the defendant in deciding whether she was reasonably in fear and used more force than was necessary.

The Court reversed the convictions and remanded the case for a new trial.

Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.

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