Murder is a hideous crime, an act which society must unequivocally condemn. But there are defenses to murder, and there is growing evidence that the legal system fails battered women who strike back at their abusive mates. This is not to suggest that these woman should be uniformly exonerated, but that they, like other defendants, deserve a fair trial. Under current law, they often don't get one.
Maryland law prohibits evidence of repeated abuse from being introduced in court as a defense against murder. As a result, a woman on trial is obliged to explain why she struck out at her abuser without being able to present details of the abuse which preceeded her action. Her lawyer must try to explain to a judge or jury what effects the battering had on the defendant without presenting testimony on battered women's syndrome -- a psychological malady characterized by hopelessness and a sense of self-esteem so low that women believe the beatings and attacks are their fault and that they can stop them, if they stay in the relationship and behave differently. At the same time, they live with the constant threat that they could be killed if the violence escalates, or that they will be hunted down if they leave.
Governor Schaefer this week exerted the power of gubernatorial clemency to rectify injustice by commuting the sentences of eight such women who were imprisoned at Jessup and who were, in effect, victimized twice -- first by their abusers, then by a judicial system that barred key evidence at their trials.
The General Assembly should follow Schaefer's lead by passing a bill to allow such evidence to be presented in cases where women are accused of killing their batterers. It would in no way be a license to kill, but rather a simple commitment to justice.