The most common form of syndrome testimony that has been introduced in the courtroom is battered woman syndrome testimony. For the most part, this testimony has been offered in homicide trials of battered women who have killed their abusers. Most often, the expert witness, typically a clinical psychologist, offers the testimony on behalf of the defense, with the testimony being of relevance to jurors’ evaluation of the woman’s claim of self-defense. The courts have been quite receptive to this form of expert testimony, and it has now been admitted with some frequency in not only courtrooms across the United States but also in courtrooms in Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Battered woman syndrome evidence has been used in other contexts as well (e.g., duress defenses, sentencing, civil actions), but the research examining its impact on jurors is confined primarily to cases involving battered women who have killed their abusers. This research suggests that the introduction of battered woman syndrome evidence is associated with positive effects for a battered woman on trial, but findings also point to some shortcomings of its use.
The term battered woman syndrome was first coined in the late 1970s by Dr. Lenore Walker, who pioneered much of the research on the topic. The syndrome describes the pattern of violence found in abusive relationships and the psychological impact that this violence can have on a woman. Drawing on her clinical work, as well as on interviews she conducted with hundreds of battered women, Walker identified a repetitive three-phase cycle that characterizes the battering relationship. The first phase, referred to as the tension-building phase, is characterized by “minor” abusive incidents (e.g., outbursts, verbal threats). These more minor incidents of abuse, however, eventually build up to the second, acute battering phase, which is then followed by the third, loving contrition phase. It is in this final phase that the abuser professes his love, promising never to harm the woman again. Believing his promises, the woman is provided some hope that the violence will cease. Eventually, however, the cycle repeats itself.
Alongside the cycle of violence theory, Walker proposed a psychological rationale to explain how battered women can become psychologically trapped in an abusive relationship. Given the repetitive, yet unpredictable nature of the violence and the impending imminence of harm that it presents to the woman, she is eventually reduced to a state of psychological helplessness, perceiving that there is little she can do to alter the situation. In her more recent writings, Walker characterizes the battered woman syndrome as a subcategory of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a clinical diagnostic disorder included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-TV.
Since its inception in the psychological literature in the late 1970s, psychologists have been asked to provide expert testimony pertaining to battered woman syndrome in homicide trials of battered women who have killed their abusers. As the content of the testimony suggests, battered woman syndrome testimony speaks of the woman’s mental state and provides a context for understanding why she perceived herself to be in imminent danger at the time of the killing. The courts have also found the expert testimony on battering and its effects to be relevant to the jurors’ understanding of the seemingly puzzling behavior and actions of the woman, most notable among these being why she remained in the relationship.
In contrast to its reception in the courts, within the psychological and legal communities, the admissibility of this form of expert testimony has sparked much debate and controversy. Since its introduction into the courtroom, some scholars and battered women’s advocates have challenged the validity and applicability of the syndrome evidence to battered women’s claims of self-defense. Methodological shortcomings in the research as well as the theories underlying the syndrome evidence have been critiqued by various researchers and legal scholars. Although numerous studies have documented the profound impact of battering and its effects on a woman’s physical and mental health, there does not appear to be overwhelming support for a singular profile. As researchers have noted, the singular portrayal of the battered woman as a passive and helpless victim conveyed via battered woman syndrome testimony fails to take into account the variability in battered women’s reactions and responses and is at variance with the help-seeking behavior of battered women. As such, scholars have warned against the dangers of adopting such a restrictive conceptualization of the responses of battered women.
As early as the mid-1980s, critics of the testimony voiced the concern that the “syndrome” terminology was likely to be interpreted by the jurors as an illness or a clinical disorder. Thus, as opposed to providing a framework that normalizes the battered woman and her actions, she is characterized as an “irrational and emotionally damaged” woman. As suggested below, a review of the empirical research examining the impact of battered woman syndrome evidence on jurors’ judgments and verdict decisions indicates that there may be some validity in these concerns.
Empirical research on the impact of battered woman syndrome evidence began in the late 1980s, with much of this work employing juror simulation techniques. Using this methodology, mock jurors are presented with a simulated or mock trial and asked to render a verdict and provide various judgments about the defendant and the case. Within the trial presentation, the presence or absence of the expert testimony is varied, and comparisons of the mock jurors’ responses (e.g., judgments, verdicts) across these different versions of the trial are made to assess the impact of the testimony. The findings of this research are somewhat mixed. While some simulation studies have found little evidence for the impact of battered woman syndrome evidence, studies conducted by Regina Schuller and her colleagues suggest that exposure to the testimony does result in more lenient verdicts and more favorable evaluations of the defendant. In a series of studies, these researchers found that compared with mock jurors who were not exposed to battered woman syndrome evidence, mock jurors provided with expert testimony pertaining to battered woman syndrome were more likely to believe the defendant’s claim of self-defense (e.g., perceptions of fear, few options) and more likely to render a not guilty verdict. Although verdict decisions were more favorable to the defendant when battered woman syndrome evidence was presented, there was also evidence consistent with the notion that battered woman syndrome evidence is likely to be associated with interpretations of psychological dysfunction. Lending some support to the concern that battered woman syndrome evidence may lead to interpretations of dysfunction, mock jurors provided with the battered woman syndrome evidence, as opposed to no expert testimony, viewed the woman as more psychologically unstable and were more likely to support a plea of insanity.
In response to the criticism that battered woman syndrome evidence characterizes battered women as psychologically damaged and fails to capture the variation in battered women’s experience, Mary Ann Dutton recommends that the term battered woman syndrome itself be dropped from the testimony and reference instead be made to expert testimony on “battering and its effects.” Moreover, Dutton, one of the authors of a review of battered woman syndrome evidence undertaken at the direction of Congress, notes that the testimony should incorporate the diverse range of traumatic reactions described in the psychological literature and should not be limited to an examination of learned helplessness, PTSD, or any other single reaction or “profile.”
Using juror simulation techniques, researchers have explored the impact of such a reformulation of the expert testimony. Specifically, the impact of an alternative form of testimony that eliminated reference to the syndrome terminology, as well as references to learned helplessness and PTSD, on mock jurors’ decisions was examined in a series of studies conducted by Schuller and her colleagues. This alternative form of the testimony placed greater emphasis on the battered woman’s agency (i.e., effortful and active rather than passive and helpless) and social realities (e.g., lack of social support). The results of this research indicate that, like the battered woman syndrome evidence, the inclusion of this expert evidence resulted in more lenient verdicts than when this evidence was omitted. Moreover, the presence of the expert testimony, compared with the no-expert condition, led to more favorable evaluations of the defendant’s claim. Finally, and in contrast to the impact of battered woman syndrome evidence on mock jurors’ evaluations of the defendant’s psychological stability, the alternative form was not associated with interpretations of psychological dysfunction. In short, the research suggests that an alternative form of testimony that emphasizes the social aspects of the battering relationship and omits references to the term battered woman syndrome, learned helplessness, and PTSD may be as successful as battered woman syndrome evidence in terms of verdict decisions. Also, it appears to avoid some of the potential pitfalls associated with the syndrome evidence.
- Dutton, M. (1993). Understanding women’s responses to domestic violence: A redefinition of battered women syndrome. Hofstra Law Review, 21, 1191-1242.
- Parrish, J. (1996). Trend analysis: Expert evidence on battering and its effects in criminal cases. In The validity and use of evidence concerning battering and its effects in criminal trials (Section 2). Washington, DC: DOJ, NIJ, USDHHS, and NIMH.
- Schuller, R. A., & Jenkins, G. (2007). Expert evidence pertaining to battered women: Limitations and reconceptualizations. In M. Costanzo, D. Krauss, & K. Pezdek (Eds.), Expert psychological testimony for the court (pp. 203-225). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Schuller, R. A., & Rzepa, S. (2002). The battered women syndrome and other psychological effects of domestic violence against women. In D. L. Faigman, D. H. Kaye, M. J. Saks, & J. Sanders (Eds.), Modern scientific evidence: The law and science of expert testimony (Vol. 2, 2nd ed., chap. 11, pp. 37-72). St. Paul, MN: West.
- Walker, L. E. (1992). Battered women syndrome and self-defense. Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, 6, 321-334.
- Walker, L. E. (2000). The battered woman syndrome (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.
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