Bill would shore courtroom defense of abused spouses House panel studies use of expert testimony


ANNAPOLIS -- The House Judiciary Committee spent yesterday afternoon trying to figure out a way to help women who assault or kill their abusive husbands or lovers defend themselves better in court.

The committee was considering a bill that would permit expert evidence of "Spousal Abuse Syndrome" to be introduced in trials of people charged with such crimes. It did so before an audience that included three women sent to prison for assaulting or killing husbands or lovers but granted clemency by Gov. William Donald Schaefer just last week.

The idea is to expand the traditional legal defense of self-defense to allow testimony demonstrating the state of mind of someone who had been physically and psychologically abused over a long period of time -- abused until they reached a breaking point.

"The purpose is to explain [to a judge and jury] what it does to someone subjected to abuse over a period of time," said Judith A. Wolfer, a lawyer who heads the domestic Violence Legal Clinic for the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women.

By permitting the introduction of evidence of spousal abuse, supporters of the bill say it would allow the person who killed their spouse to claim self-defense -- even if it appeared that she otherwise would be considered the "first aggressor."

Committee members, many of them saying they were sympathetic to the problem the bill attempts to address, wondered how it would work in practice.

"I don't have a problem with the concept," said Delegate Kenneth H. Masters, D-Baltimore County, who questioned the sponsors closely on specific wording in the bill. "I'm persuaded the evidence [regarding abuse] ought to come in. My problem is with the technical drafting of the bill."

Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, the committee chairman, said lawyers on the committee had raised "very good questions," but he worried that the bill may be too vague or broad. However, he said he thought members of the committee were interested in redrafting the bill.

Nancy J. Nowak, executive director of the governor's Office of Justice Assistance, said that when a battered spouse acts to defend herself, it usually occurs in a "period of lull in the battering pattern."

"Often, the defendant cannot explain why they feel they are in imminent harm of dying," she said. "They knew the signals, but were not in the throes of it. But they knew it was impending."

It is that state of mind that often triggers a violent response, and which can only be explained in court through expert legal testimony, she said. "The bill doesn't assure acquittal," she said, adding that it also is not "a license to kill," as some detractors claim.

A similar bill was introduced last year, but with far less fanfare. This year's hearing was upstaged by the governor's announcement last week that he had commuted the sentences of eight women imprisoned for assaulting or murdering abusive husbands or boyfriends.

Three of those women sat in the committee audience yesterday to show their support for the legislation, but did not testify because they did not want to rehash their cases again in public. They also said Chairman Arnick had asked them not to turn the hearing into an "emotional" event.

Outside the hearing, however, Joyce Steiner, who had served 11 months of a five-year sentence for the second-degree murder of her abusive husband before being released last Friday, said: "I'm glad they're getting this [problem] out of the closet and putting it on the table."

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