The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

Getting Away With Murder

Could a legally recognized Battered Woman Syndrome set killers free?

By Krista Wiley

When judges and juries consider criminal cases one of things they must do is identify the alleged perpetrator of the crime and the victim. In cases of murder this distinction seems fairly straightforward. The dead person is the victim and the person who allegedly killed that person may be guilty of murder.

However, determining the guilty party in a murder case is not always as easy as it may seem. What if it appears as though one party is both the perpetrator of the crime and a victim of another? This is a question that judges and juries are asked to consider when women on trial for murder claim that they committed the crime because they were the victims of long-term abuse.

State v. Stewart (1988) is a well-known case in which the jury was faced with this question. Peggy Stewart fatally shot her husband while he was sleeping and was charged with murder in the first degree. Stewart plead not guilty, claiming that she shot her husband in self-defense.

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At first, Stewart’s plea seems ridiculous. Why would she need to defend herself against her sleeping husband? Typically, a sleeping human is not capable of becoming a violent threat. However, the facts of the case revealed that Stewart was the victim of long-term abuse.

The morning of the day that she murdered her husband, Stewart found a loaded .357 magnum while cleaning the house. She testified that the gun frightened her. She also testified that her husband often made remarks about how she shouldn’t bother cleaning the house because she wouldn’t be there for long. That evening, after enduring the physical and sexual abuse of her husband, Stewart considered the possibility of suicide. She located the gun that she had found earlier, went back to her bedroom, and shot and killed her husband instead of killing herself. After the shooting, Stewart ran to a neighbor’s house and called the police.

The jury found Peggy Stewart not guilty because expert evidence showed that she suffered from the Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS). Initially called the battered person syndrome, BWS was introduced by defense attorneys in the 1970s. Attorneys use BWS to explain premeditation. They claim that the abused woman is incapable of leaving the relationship due to ‘learned helplessness.’ The woman is also unable to fight back while actually being attacked. As the violence escalates, a woman who suffers from BWS believes that the only way that she can protect herself is to eliminate her abuser when he is in a vulnerable situation. In Stewart’s case, her abuser was vulnerable while sleeping.

Unfortunately for Stewart, her case was appealed. Upon taking a closer look at the facts, the Supreme Court of Kansas found that BWS ‘in and of itself does not operate as a defense to murder.’ Despite evidence of abuse, the Court did not believe that Stewart faced an imminent threat at the time that she murdered her husband.  

In our contemporary legal setting, BWS is not considered a legal defense. BWS expert testimony is only used to explain a battered woman’s experiences. If a woman suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of BWS, it is possible for an attorney to use PTSD as a defense.

There does appear to be considerable overlap between the legal definition of BWS and the DSM-IV diagnosis and criteria for PTSD. Those who have been subject to rape, child sexual abuse, and war are commonly diagnosed with PTSD. The diagnosis of PTSD depends on the severity of violence, duration of exposure, and the victim’s assessment of the degree of threat.

However, simply substituting PTSD for BWS is problematic for at least three reasons. First, a defendant diagnosed with PTSD may have experienced trauma early in their life or outside of the abusive relationship. So, in some cases it would be very difficult to link the PTSD suffered by the defendant to the abusive relationship in question. Second, abuse takes many forms. While some abuse is physical or sexual other abuse is psychological. Traumatic events experienced by those who suffer from PTSD are limited to sexual and physical abuse. The additional psychological abuse experienced by a person who suffers from BWS can lead to symptoms not included in the PTSD criteria such as self-blame and loyalty to the abuser. Finally, substituting PTSD for BWS is unacceptable because it denigrates the serious social issue of domestic violence. The creation of a diagnosis specific to women who are victims of domestic violence will address the issue directly and help attorneys and psychiatrists to accurately help victims.   

There is widespread agreement across cultures that murder is one of the cruelest crimes that one human can perpetrate against another. The penalty for murder is in the United States is the most severe punishment available. However, when the distinction between perpetrator and victim becomes blurred, can we justify allowing someone to get away with murder?

Source: State v. Stewart, 60896 U.S. 379 (1988).

Kristian Marlow is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab.

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