Battered Woman Syndrome Evidence in Alabama Self-Defense Cases

The Supreme Court of the United States has expressly recognized that, under the Due Process Clause of Fourteenth Amendment and the Compulsory Process and Confrontation Clauses of the Sixth Amendment, a criminal defendant must be given “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense” -i.e., a right to make a full defense, and tell his or her story, by presenting relevant and probative evidence that supports his or her case. See, e.g. California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479, 485 (1984). See also Crane, 476 U,S, at 689

Rule 405(b) of Alabama Rules of Evidence states:  “In cases in which character or a trait of character of a person is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, proof may also be made of specific instances of that person’s conduct.” The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has previously ruled that Rule 405(b) “authorizes the admission of testimony concerning specific instances of a victim’s violent conduct in a case where the victim’s violent character is essential to a defendant’s claim of self-defense.” Clancy v. State, 886 So. 2d 166, 169 (Ala. Crim. App. 2003)

Prior specific acts actually are proper evidence of the reasonableness of a defendant’s actions and his “state-of-mind” in  a self-defense case. Williams v. State, 938 So. 2d 440, 448 (Ala. Crim. App. 2005)

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has even found that evidence of a general reputation for violence, blood-thirstiness or dangerousness, much less specific acts toward the accused, is admissible as having probative value on elements of the doctrine of self- defense. “Evidence of this type is also admissible for the purpose of showing a reasonable apprehension of immediately pending danger which would justify the accused in striking more quickly, under the circumstances prevailing at the time of the homicide.” Brooks v. State, 263 Ala. 386, 389, 82 So. 2d 553, 555 (1955) Alabama law even recognizes the right of one who has received mere threats to “act more promptly and on slighter overt act or demonstration than it would in the absence of such proof”. Raines v. State, 455 So. 2d 967, 971 (Ala. Crim. App. 1984)

Also, evidence of “physical and emotional injuries received by [a Defendant] in the prior difficulties” was relevant and probative on the issue of state-of-mind “by reason of continuing pain from injuries suffered by him.” Dickerson v. State, 360 So. 2d 1045, 1053 (Ala. Crim. App. 1978)

However, Alabama also fully allows expert testimony of battered syndrome.

 “[E]xpert testimony on Battered Woman Syndrone can be admitted to assist the jury in understanding the syndrome, and also to help the jury determine whether the defendant had an honest belief that she was in imminent danger, as that determination related to a claim of self-defense.

Harrington v. State, 858 So. 2d 278, 294 (Ala. Crim. App. 2002) Alabama courts have actually elaborated extensively on the policy behind these principles of admissibility of testimony, both lay and expert, on the effects of being a battered woman.  This Court in Bonner quoted, at length, State v. Kelly, a New Jersey case:

What the expert could state was that defendant had the battered-woman’s syndrome, and could explain that syndrome in detail, relating its characteristics to defendant, but only to enable the jury better to determine the honesty and reasonableness of defendant’s belief. Depending on its content, the expert’s testimony might also enable the jury to find that the battered wife, because of the prior beatings, numerous beatings, as often as once a week, for seven years, from the day they were married to the day he died, is particularly able to predict accurately the likely extent of violence in any attack on her. That conclusion could significantly affect the jury’s evaluation of the reasonableness of defendant’s fear for her life.

Accordingly, lay and expert testimony regarding the history of abuse and the resulting behavioral responses are admissible and relevant in self-defense cases to provide the jury with a proper understanding, unencumbered by prevailing myths concerning battered women, of the circumstances surrounding the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions. Alabama case law makes such evidence admissible and relevant to the state-of-mind necessary for the defense of self-defense.

Many states have actually enacted statutes to specifically allow such evidence. This issue is so important that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals made an unusual request of the Legislature.

“In light of these and similar tragic events, a reevaluation of Alabama’s body of law surrounding self-defense and battered spouse syndrome is necessary. It has become increasingly clear that leaving an abusive relationship may not, in fact, mean that the victim’s safety is no longer threatened. As our own cases show, domestic violence often escalates to deadly levels. . .The difficult situation presented to this Court in [battered woman cases] can be avoided in future cases if the Alabama Legislature seizes the opportunity to address this important issue, as the legislatures in other jurisdictions have done. We encourage the Legislature to address the existing body of law on self-defense as it relates to battered spouse syndrome.

Harrington v. State, 858 So. 2d 278, 299 (Ala. Crim. App. 2002)

So far, the Legislature has not taken up this call.