Battered-Woman Syndrome

In 1990, in a murder case in which a woman shot her husband while he slept, the Ohio Supreme Court first recognized the battered-woman syndrome as a defense in a criminal case. In that case, State v. Koss, Brenda Koss and a number of other witnesses testified about Michael Koss’ ongoing abusive behavior toward her.

The Koss case is an interesting example of how the law evolves. In 1981, the state high court had refused to allow the admission of any evidence on the battered-woman syndrome, believing that it had not yet been adequately scientifically validated. But by 1990, in the Koss case, the Court found that the professional literature and psychiatric understanding of battered- woman syndrome had very much evolved. So the Court reversed itself and held that expert testimony on the battered-woman’s syndrome could be admitted in a trial.

Battered-woman syndrome is not a separate defense in a criminal trial. It is one aspect of the defense of self defense. Self defense is an affirmative defense, which means the accused has the burden of proving it. To prove self defense, the accused has to prove that she was not at fault in creating the violent situation, that she had a bona fide belief that she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, that her only means of escape was the use of force, and that she did not violate any duty to retreat or avoid the danger.

In the Koss case the Court held that evidence of the battered-woman syndrome was admissible, through a properly-qualified expert witness, to help prove the second element of self defense — that the accused had a bona fide belief that she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that her only means of escape was the use of force.

The author of the Koss opinion was Justice Alice Robie Resnick, then only the second woman ever elected to the Ohio Supreme Court. (Florence Allen, elected in 1922, was the first). Resnick spelled out the components of the battered-woman’s syndrome, writing, “the first component is met when the woman is established to be a battered woman. The second component is that at the time of the incident, all the prior battering incidents appear in a flashback to the woman, thus triggering an immediate fear of death and causing her to respond almost instinctively in self-defense.”

Shortly after the Koss case was decided, and consistent with that decision, the legislature passed a law recognizing and thus validating the battered-woman syndrome, and permitting the use of expert testimony in support of the defense.

Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court took another look at the battered-woman syndrome through a different lens. A woman’s state of mind is critical if a woman intends to rely on the battered-woman syndrome as part of a self-defense strategy. In State v. Goff, decided last December, the issue before the Court was whether ordering the accused to submit to a psychiatric examination by the state in response to her raising the battered-woman syndrome was a violation of her right against self-incrimination.

Megan Goff was in a long abusive relationship. Finally, she shot and killed her husband in what had been their marital residence, believing that she and her children were in imminent fear of being killed themselves. She asserted the battered-woman’s syndrome as part of her defense of self-defense. Over her objection, the trial court ordered Goff to submit to a psychiatric examination by the state’s expert. The court ruled that if Goff offered expert testimony on this theory, the state was entitled to do so as well.

Goff’s own expert testified unequivocally that Goff had symptoms of battered woman’s syndrome, and that she had reason to believe that she and her children were in imminent danger of death or serious physical injury at the time of the shooting. The state’s expert testified that he could not reach an opinion on whether Goff had symptoms of battered-woman’s syndrome. He was skeptical, given the fact that Goff, who no longer lived at the marital residence, initiated the confrontation with her husband at the marital residence, arming herself with two weapons before going to the house. The state’s psychiatrist offered six alternative theories for why Goff had killed her husband, most of which involved her anger at him rather than imminent fear for herself and her children. Goff was found guilty of aggravated murder.

The question before the Court was whether both sides should have the opportunity to examine a defendant claiming to suffer from battered-woman syndrome, or whether the protections against self incrimination were such that only the defendant’s expert could conduct such an examination. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Paul Pfeifer, the Court held that both sides had the right to examine the accused to determine if she suffered from battered-woman’s syndrome, but that the state’s examination went far beyond that in this case. The Court found that the state’s expert psychiatrist improperly used the disclosures Goff had made to him against her in order to help the state win its case, and in doing so, violated Goff’s rights against self-incrimination.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote a short separate opinion. He agreed with the majority that Goff’s rights were violated in this case. But he did not agree that the state had the right to examine the accused in the first place, because the legislature did not provide for such an examination when it passed the law recognizing the battered-woman syndrome.

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