Combatting Domestic Violence: Realities Of Battered Women’s Syndrome and Self-Defense Law

The Social Problem

To tell you the truth, we’ve been losing sleep trying to decide how to present the topic of domestic violence in a way that makes a difference. By “make a difference” we mean making family life in our country safer from acts of violence by husbands and boyfriends against wives, girlfriends and children. We’re not sexist and recognize that it may occasionally be the wife that is abusive. But most often it involves abusive husbands who treat their wives and sometimes their children as their property or, worse yet, cattle. In many, if not most cases, substance abuse, particularly alcoholism, increases the potential lethality. Murder-suicides occur several times weekly throughout the country. Roughly one-third of the murders in this country are domestic violence related. 

If wives and girlfriends are not killed, they are often tortured and disfigured. Jealous boyfriends become obsessed with the thought, “If I can’t ‘have’ her, no one will.” In their twisted tyranny they have shot, slashed or burned girlfriends to ensure that no other man would ever want the horribly disfigured object of their obsession. We are realistic enough to know we won’t be able to solve the pervasive problem of physical abuse in one article. But the problem is so horrible something must be done to reduce the casualties. 

As the cases referred to below show, some women take abuse until they are ready to explode and then react with uncharacteristic deadly fury. Usually the woman is so convinced of her worthlessness that she can’t imagine living without her strong, dominating, but cruel partner. The abusive cycle occurs over and over without the spiritually broken woman being able to muster up enough courage and strength to get out of the destructive relationship. To add to her reluctance, he tells her that if she leaves he’ll kill her, the kids, her family and maybe even himself. After several beatings, the woman begins to develop a sixth sense about when threats shift to acts of physical violence. The injuries become increasingly more painful and severe. Finally, she cannot imagine herself surviving if she waits until his next attack. So she ventilates his virileness while he’s burping Budweiser or cogitating cocaine, hovering horizontal, in a state of ahhhhh after his latest sexual assault which has left her bleeding, bruised, broken, and hopeless. 

When they snap, these gals shoot, stab, run over, or burn their lovers with gasoline. Some have hired hit men. Almost all of these women are convicted of murder or manslaughter. If they are acquitted, it’s usually be reason of insanity which involves incarceration in a mental institution. 

The Legal Problem

There has got to be a better way. Before we look at possible solutions, let us give you a more in depth look at the shocking facts from actual cases. It’s hard to imagine this kind of brutality in a supposedly civilized society. Commonwealth v. Sands, 553 S.E.2d 733 (Va. 2001) is an appalling case of years of physical beatings and prison-like domination. Following are the facts recited by the appeals court, except we substituted her real first name instead of using her legal designation, appellant. 

[T]he evidence showed that Victoria [the wife] and Sands [the husband] were married in 1983. Two years after they were married, Sands began beating Victoria. The beatings became progressively worse over time and, at the end, they occurred on a daily basis. Sands was not gainfully employed for the last eight to ten years of their marriage,during which time he used and sold cocaine, marijuana and moonshine. [Not your typical small business owner scratching out a living from home. So you ask, “Why didn’t she just leave the dirt-bag drug dealer?” The next couple of paragraphs provide some insight.]

Victoria wanted to take her four-year-old son, leave Sands and get a divorce. Sands told her she could not leave and threatened repeatedly to kill her and her parents if she did. She said she believed Sands would have found and killed her if she had gone to a shelter. Sands also refused Victoria's requests that he leave the marital residence. Whenever she broached the subject of divorce, he beat her. . . 

On August 12, 1998, Victoria spoke to her parents and asked for their help in trying to get Sands arrested for his illegal activities, in the hope that his arrest and conviction would free her from his repeated abuse and threats. However, on August 17, before Victoria's parents were able to take any significant action, they were seriously injured in an automobile accident. Victoria knew she couldn't do anything further on that front because, if she took any direct action to report Sands' activities to the police herself, she believed Sands would find out and kill her. 

On August 17, 1998, Sands accompanied Victoria to the hospital in North Carolina to visit her injured parents. Sands returned home that day while Victoria remained with her parents. When Victoria and Sands spoke several times that week, Sands expressed his anger at the fact that Victoria wanted to stay to care for her hospitalized parents rather than to come home to him. When Victoria returned home on the evening of Saturday, August 22, 1998, intending to stay only overnight before returning to help her parents in North Carolina, Sands was angry because she had been gone and did not call to say she was coming home. . . . Sands went into a rage, beat Victoria, and threatened to kill her, saying, "you will die, I promise you, you will die." Victoria did not flee the marital home because she was afraid Sands would come after her and kill her as he had threatened. Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, Sands hit Victoria "[h]undreds and hundreds of times," and threatened her with a gun he always carried, which he repeatedly put up her nose.

At approximately 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, August 23, Victoria tried to hide Sands' gun, and the couple got into another argument on the back porch of their home. Despite the fact that Victoria held the firearm during this time, Sands pushed her into a sink and threw her down five or six concrete steps. Victoria found herself lying on the ground with Sands sitting on top of her holding the firearm. After Sands pinned Victoria to the ground, he again told her he would kill her, and he fired two shots into the ground near her.
. . . 
Shortly thereafter, Victoria's aunt, Sallie Hodges, came to the house to get the couple's son so she could care for him while Victoria returned to North Carolina to look after her parents. Victoria appeared "sad" and the side of her face looked bruised. Sands was pacing and calling Victoria derogatory names. Sands told Hodges he would not allow Victoria to leave. He then said to Hodges, "I'll kill you and your whole family. . . . I've knocked off a few [people] and I can knock off a few more too." Victoria refused to allow Hodges to take the couple's son, and Hodges left.

When Victoria's brother arrived to take Victoria to visit their parents, Sands would not allow Victoria to leave and told her brother that he would take Victoria to North Carolina himself.

Sands remained home all day, where he used cocaine and drank alcohol. Periodically, he lay down to watch television in the bedroom for five or ten minutes, but he always got up to beat Victoria again and threaten her with the gun. He continued this pattern throughout the day. As the day progressed, Sands continued to tell Victoria he was going to kill her, and Victoria said she believed he was going to do it.

At about 10:00 p.m., Victoria was able to use the telephone. She called Hodges to come get the couple's four-year-old son and take him to her house. While Victoria was on the phone with Hodges, Donald Wright, the couple's neighbor, came to the couple's house and agreed to take the child to Hodges' house. Victoria said she wanted her son away from the house because she “sensed" Sands was going to kill her. After Victoria called Hodges, she then called her sister-in-law, Angela Shelton, and asked Shelton to come to her house. Before Shelton arrived, Sands beat Victoria again. During this beating, which Victoria described as the "longest," Sands hit Victoria's head with the butt of his gun and again put the barrel of the gun up her nose. He then returned to his position in the bedroom in front of the television.

When Shelton arrived, Victoria was crying and upset. Shelton and Victoria went into the bathroom where Shelton helped Victoria undress so they could look at Victoria's bruised and beaten body. After seeing the extent of her injuries, Victoria started shaking and said, "the devil, look at what the devil's done to me. I've got to get this devil out of my house. He's evil." Victoria then "ran out of the bathroom and the door
of the living room, . . . came back to the kitchen, . . . opened the cabinet door, . . . got the gun, . . . went to the bedroom and . . . shot [Sands]" five times while he was lying in bed, awake, watching television. After Victoria shot Sands, she walked out of the bedroom, laid the gun down, and called the police.

An officer who saw Victoria at the scene after the shooting testified that her bruises were readily apparent and that her nose was "twisted to the side." He thought her ribs and nose were broken.

After the shooting, Victoria was examined by an emergency room physician, who found that she had "multiple bruises and contusions throughout her body, most of which were extensive in the upper arms and in the flanks." The deceased had bruising on the first and second knuckles of his right hand and on the first knuckle of his left hand. Victoria's mother, aunt, and sister-in-law testified that they had seen bruises on Victoria numerous times in the months preceding the shooting, and Victoria's aunt and sister-in-law testified that they observed bruises on her the day of the shooting. . . .

Victoria was convicted of first degree murder. [What?!] Her conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court of Virginia saying she was not entitled to a self-defense jury instruction because His Excellency was reclined in front of the TV high on cocaine instead of committing an imminent, “overt act” like attacking her with a weapon. Without a jury instruction telling them they could find her not guilty by reason of self-defense, the jury had no choice but to convict Victoria. This shocking case illustrates how the traditional definition of imminence falls short of giving abused women a shot at convincing juries they had no choice but to resort to the use of deadly force. Virginia’s self-defense law gave this woman two choices assuming she truly believed her husband’s death threats: (1) Try to leave and take the chance of him killing her and her family, (2) Kill him and spend the next several decades in prison while someone else raised her little boy. She chose the latter.


What is Battered Woman Syndrome?

Black’s law dictionary describes battered woman syndrome as “a constellation of medical and psychological conditions of a woman who has suffered physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of a spouse or lover.” (Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. 2004). A Maryland court recently compiled a learned discourse on the subject of battered woman’s syndrome as follows (citations omitted):

“Dr. Lenore Walker, an academic and clinical psychologist, is usually credited with first describing the battered spouse syndrome, which she called the “battered woman syndrome.” . . . Dr. Walker identified a “battered woman” as one who is repeatedly subjected to any forceful physical or psychological behavior by a man in order to coerce her to do something he wants her to do without any concern for her rights. She described three phases to the battering cycle, which, she said, may vary in both time and intensity. Phase I she referred to as the “tension-building” phase, in which minor incidents of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse occur. The woman is not severely abused, but the batterer begins to express hostility toward her. . . .Phase II consists of an acute battering incident, in which the batterer “typically unleashes a barrage of verbal and physical aggression that can leave the woman severely shaken and injured.” . . . Phase III is a contrition stage, in which the batterer apologizes, seeks forgiveness, and promises to change. The apparent transformation of the abuser back into a loving partner, according to Walker, “provides the positive reinforcement for remaining in the relationship.” . . 
The essence of the syndrome is that this cycle repeats, and, indeed, Walker asserts that the syndrome does not exist unless it has repeated at least once. Worse, perhaps, than the mere repetition, is the fact that, over time, the cycle becomes more intense, more frequent, more violent, and often more lethal.” State v. Smullen, 844 A.2d 429 at 440 and 441 (Md. 2004).


Reasonableness and Imminence Can Be Different for Battered Women

The following quote from an open-minded Oklahoma court explains how the concept of reasonableness and imminence can be different for the battered woman: 

“For the battered woman, if there is no escape or sense of safety, then the next attack, which could be fatal or cause serious bodily harm, is imminent. Based on the traditionally accepted definition of imminent and its functional derivative, a battered woman, to whom the threat of serious bodily harm or death is always imminent, would be precluded from asserting the defense of self-defense.

Under our "hybrid" reasonableness standard, the meaning of imminent must necessarily envelope the battered woman's perceptions based on all the facts and circumstances of his or her relationship with the victim. In Women's Self-defense Cases: Theory and Practice (1981), Elizabeth Bochnak writes:

The battered woman learns to recognize the small signs that precede periods of escalated violence. She learns to distinguish subtle changes in tone of voice, facial expression, and levels of danger. She is in a position to know, perhaps with greater certainly than someone attacked by a stranger, that the batterer's threat is real and will be acted upon.

Thus, according to the author, an abused woman may kill her mate during the period of threat that precedes a violent incident, right before the violence escalates to the more dangerous levels of an acute battering episode. Or, she may take action against him during a lull in an assaultive incident, or after it has culminated, in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the violence. And so, the issue is not whether the danger was in fact imminent, but whether, given the circumstances as she perceived them, the defendant's belief was reasonable that the danger was imminent.” Bechtel v. State, 840 P.2d 1 (Okl.Cr. 1992).

Although the Oklahoma court refers to the standard as a “hybrid” standard, it is not so awfully different from a concept we see in the homicide instructions of some of the states. For example, California’s 505. Justifiable Homicide: Self-Defense or Defense of Another instruction provides in part:

When deciding whether defendant’s beliefs were reasonable, you [the jury] must consider all the circumstances as they were known to and appeared to the defendant and consider what a reasonable person in a similar situation with similar knowledge would have believed. (Emphasis added.)

It’s still a reasonable person standard in a sense. But it’s a reasonable person having experienced the same treatment under the same circumstances for the same amount of time as the defendant. Did she act reasonably by killing her husband believing she would die if she waited for an “overt act” such as his picking up a gun and aiming at her head? It would be hard to imagine jurors understanding how years of abuse can alter a person’s perceptions of reasonableness or imminence unless courts allow expert testimony from learned professionals who have studied the effects of years of serious physical abuse. Unfortunately, not all courts in all states allow expert testimony. 

We don’t want to give the impression that abused wives never win their cases. They do, but very seldom. In stark contrast to the Sands case above, an appeals court in Virginia’s sister state, West Virginia, overturned a conviction of first degree murder of a woman who shot her husband during a night of terror chillingly comparable to the facts in the Sands case. The following are the facts: 

On September 5, 2004, the defendant was arrested upon her admission to having shot and killed her husband, Danuel Harden. At trial, the defendant asserted a claim of self-defense, arguing that her actions precipitously followed a “night of domestic terror” that ended only when the defendant shot and killed the decedent. . . . the decedent, while drinking heavily (with a blood alcohol count ultimately reaching 0.22% at the time of his death) subjected the defendant to a several-hour-long period of physical and emotional violence. This violence included the decedent brutally beating the defendant with the butt and barrel of a shotgun, brutally beating the defendant with his fists, and sexually assaulting the defendant. An emergency room physician at Cabell Huntington Hospital, who examined the defendant on the morning of the shooting, testified that the defendant “had contusions of both orbital areas, the right upper arm, a puncture wound with a foreign body of the right forearm, contusions of her chest, left facial cheek, the left upper lip” and that “X-rays done at the time demonstrated a nasal fracture.”

In addition to the physical violence summarized above, the evidence adduced at trial also showed that the decedent repeatedly threatened to kill the defendant and the defendant's nine-year-old son B.H., ten-year-old daughter A.H., and ten-year-old B.K. (a friend of A.H.'s who had been invited for a “sleep over”). This evidence included testimony from two of the children. B.H. testified to seeing and hearing the decedent say to the defendant “I am going to go get the gun and shoot you” and that the decedent did, in fact, go to a back room in the defendant's home and get a shotgun, and returned to the room with the gun where the decedent subsequently struck the defendant with the butt of the gun in the shoulders and arms while she was seated in a recliner. In addition to B.H.'s testimony, B.K. also testified that she was frightened by what she could hear from her bedroom and had difficulty falling asleep, and that after finally falling asleep, she was awakened by more sounds of fighting, at one point over-hearing the defendant say to the decedent that “she didn't want to get killed with her two kids.”

It is conceded by the State that the defendant suffered a “night of domestic terror.” During its opening statement the State described the evening's violence as a “knock-down-drag-out” fight. By the time of the State's closing argument, the State conceded to the jury that “Yes, she had a night of terror.” In its brief to this Court, the State concedes that the decedent's death followed an “evening of physical and sexual abuse.”

Notwithstanding the fact that it does not dispute that the defendant endured a night of extreme violence at the hands of the decedent, the State nonetheless argues that the defendant's claim of self-defense is “untenable.” In its closing argument, the State argued to the jury that “the law ... on self-defense says that in order to use deadly force in self-defense you must find that the apprehension existed at the time the defendant attacked, or in this case shot, the [decedent].” In addition, the State maintained that the defendant did not have a reasonable basis to apprehend any danger from the decedent at the time she used deadly force against the decedent because there had been a “cooling off” period, and the evidence showed that the decedent was lying down on a couch possibly “asleep” or, alternately, possibly “passed out drunk” when the defendant shot him. The State further argued to the jury that the defendant's use of deadly force was not reasonable because the defendant could have retreated from any danger posed by the decedent, evidenced by the fact that the decedent “is on that couch with a BAC of .22 [blood alcohol content – two to three times higher than legally drunk in many states] and she has got control of that shotgun, she ... could have called the law, and she could have walked out of that trailer. Period. But she didn't.” State v. Harden, 679 S.E.2d 628, 631-633.


After her conviction of murder, in an appeal to the Supreme Court of West Virginia, Mrs. Harden insisted she had killed her husband in self-defense. The court agreed:

“Our law entitled the defendant under the circumstances of this case to her subjective belief that she was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury and to abate that threat, without retreating, with the use of deadly force. Under the circumstances shown by the evidence in this case, the defendant's use of deadly force to protect herself, without retreating, is subjectively reasonable… Additionally, the overwhelming evidence demonstrates that any reasonable person similarly situated would have believed that death or serious bodily injury were imminent.” State v. Harden, 679 S.E.2d 628, 647 (W.Va. 2009).


The court in Harden set forth a subjective and objective test for reasonableness and imminence and held that the defendant had met both tests. 

“First, a defendant's belief that death or serious bodily injury was imminent must be shown to have been subjectively reasonable, which is to say that a defendant actually believed, based upon all the circumstances perceived by him or her at the time deadly force was used, that such force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. Second, that the defendant's belief must be objectively reasonable when considering all of the circumstances surrounding the defendant's use of deadly force, which is to say that another person, similarly situated, could have reasonably formed the same belief.” State v. Harden, 679 S.E.2d 628, 634 (W.Va. 2009).

Recent Improvements

Fortunately, more states’ self-defense laws are beginning to broaden their statutory definitions of imminence to take into account the case of repeated abuse and a history of violence. For example, Kentucky law has a spousal abuse clause that says, “imminent can be inferred from a past pattern of repeated serious abuse.” 

Before states like Kentucky and Georgia addressed this issue and expanded the definition of “imminent,” it was quite impossible for a woman to win a case of self-defense unless the jury was so shocked by the abuse that they disregarded the law (sometimes referred to as “juror nullification”). Now at least there is a possibility of a not-guilty verdict, although far too few states have expanded their self-defense laws to address abuse as effectively as Kentucky has. Maryland and Ohio have adopted a helpful definition of Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) in their codes. Unfortunately, in Ohio, the burden of proof is on the defendant to prove self-defense, which somewhat lessens the advantage of allowing evidence of BWS to be admitted. 

Despite improvements in the law, you’ll notice that in virtually every case we’ve reported, the defendant wife was tried, convicted and had to appeal. To our knowledge, there is only one possible way to avoid the legal nightmare after an act of self-defense against a former lover. 

Our Advice

If a wife/girlfriend is being abused, we advise that she (1) immediately ask a court to order her husband/boyfriend to stay away from her and (2) establish a separate residence. She should make it very clear to the local police that her husband/boyfriend has threatened to kill her and she believes he will try to do so again if he gets a chance. 

Warning About Protective Orders - Unfortunately, far too many women believe that a court order will protect her from physical harm. IT WON’T!!!!! We don’t know how to emphasize this enough. If the dirty, mean, cantankerous, abusive, possessive, dominating, tyrannical SOB decides to commit murder, do you really believe he will care if you have a protective order that tells him to stay away from you or else he will be in contempt of court? Does he care even if he’s told violating the court order could result in a felony conviction? Hello!!!! The imbecile is either willing to do life without parole for first degree murder, wants to die in a gun battle with police and go out “in a blaze of glory,” or he plans on putting a bullet through his own head after he puts his lover’s backside on ice. Does anyone honestly believe a protective order provides any physical protection at all? IT DOESN’T! Certainly experienced law enforcement officers and seasoned domestic relation judges know that most of the domestic-violence murders they see or hear about occur AFTER a protective order is in place. The courts should be handing out bullet-proof vests, handguns gift certificates to gun safety classes if they are serious about the defense of women. Surely they know the police often cannot respond quickly enough to save a woman whose husband or boyfriend has decided she must die.

Why in the world would we suggest she get a protective order if it’s not worth the paper it’s written on to protect her physically? It’s to PROTECT HER LEGALLY when she blows his VIOLENT A$$ away!!!!!! [Another dramatic reminder that we are NOT SUGAR COATING anything in this article!!!]

If he tries to kill her in her new, SEPARATE household, the home defense law of the state in which she lives should apply. Home defense laws are typically more protective than laws pertaining to self-defense outside of the home. If he tries to break in to kill her and he has a weapon, she would normally be justified. (Yeah, Yeah, we know some of the Eastern States have wimpy home-defense laws, but we are doing all we can to change that. See Mother of All Self-Defense Laws, Chapter 20, Self-Defense Laws of All 50 States by Attorney Mitch Vilos and Evan Vilos.) If he has no weapon, but is threatening to beat her to death, and she kills him, she can probably count on being arrested and prosecuted, but, if she lives in the right state, she may be found not guilty. Some states have home-defense statutes that reduce the threshold for using deadly force from “fear of death or serious injury” to “fear of personal violence.” The holding of an older Pennsylvania case supports the wisdom of an abused woman getting a separate residence if she thinks she may have to use deadly force to survive her intimate partner’s threat to kill her:

In the instant case, however, the mere fact that deceased and defendant were husband and wife does not compel the application of the ordinary rules of self-defense on the theory that each had an equal right to be on the premises. Here the defendant and deceased had been separated and defendant had maintained her separate residence. Because of the estrangement and separation of the husband and wife, it does not appear that both had an equal right to be there. Clearly, the husband, under the circumstances, could be regarded as an intruder in his wife's home, and the jury should have been instructed that if they found the husband was an intruder and that the defendant had reason to believe and did believe that what she did was necessary for the safety of her own life or to protect her from great bodily harm, she was not obliged to retreat or attempt to escape; and that the killing under such circumstances constituted justifiable homicide, entitling her to acquittal. (Emphasis added.) Com. v. Fraser, 369 Pa. 273, 278 (1952).


Tragically, notice the wife was still prosecuted and convicted and had to appeal. We assume she either had a rich daddy or one dynamite of a pubic defender. Of course, this case happened in the “old days” when a woman could get a lawyer like Perry Mason without exhausting her entire one-fifth ownership interest in Gigantous Corporation. 

LADIES, PLEASE, YOU DON'T HAVE TO DIE LIKE THIS! Hopefully this chapter will help you abandon the it-can't-happen-to-me fantasy. Anytime a man threatens, "if I can't have you, no one will," it's time to stop fooling yourself, stop feeling sorry for the jerk and establish a separate household NO MATTER WHAT IT TAKES! It might be harder to do if you have fallen into the rut and cycle of Battered Women’s Syndrome. It's time to get a gun and firearms training and stop being squeamish about the reality you may have to use it to stay alive for those you love and who love you. Unless YOUR criminal record prohibits it, take a concealed weapon course from someone who has a good reputation for knowing the law and study the law of self-defense. Learn it backwards and forwards and so you can apply it in the split second you may have to react to save your life. If you believe in the falsehood that the police can be there to save you under every scenario, you may end up looking down upon them from another realm as they outline your lifeless form with chalk and deliver the sad news to those whose hearts you would never consciously want to break.



In the event you are unlucky enough to have come upon this article AFTER your defensive incident and your trial is still pending, make sure you tell your lawyer about the following jury instruction that he might be able to use depending upon the facts and the law in your state. This rule of law should be applied in your case unless when arm wrestling your husband while he was alive, you won 9 out of 10 matches.

The Court instructs the jury that if the deceased, Wendell Norris, was a much larger and stronger man than the defendant, Nancy Manuel, so much so that the Defendant was wholly and absolutely incapable of coping with him in a physical combat, and was liable to receive serious and great bodily injuries at the hands of the deceased in the event that they became engaged in combat, then the Defendant was justified in using a deadly weapon to protect himself [sic] from an unjustifiable and deadly attack of the deceased even though the deceased was wholly unarmed, and the Defendant was in no danger from the deceased except such as might be inflicted by the deceased with his hands or feet. Manuel v. State, 667 So.2d 590, 591 (Miss. 1995). 

The appeals court held this instruction was a correct statement of the law and should have been given by the trial court in a case involving a boyfriend who allegedly attacked his much smaller girlfriend. Even though he was unarmed, she said he threatened to kill her. She stabbed and killed him with a knife, claiming self-defense. 

A Call to Action

We encourage women advocacy groups throughout the country to work tirelessly to do what it takes to make sure their state changes its laws and its jury instructions to account for the realities of domestic violence and battered woman syndrome. Furthermore, we all need to abandon the backward concept that women are better off without a means of self-defense. Some police agencies are now encouraging battered women to get a gun and take a self-defense course so they will know how to use it and get legal training to know when the law allows them to use the weapon for self-defense.

And last, but not least, if you are a “gun guy” who’s abusing his intimate partner, you COWARDLY SON OF A #@TCH! STOP IT NOW!!!! The rest of us Second Amendment advocates don’t claim you as one of us.