Bill would bolster defense of women who attack abusers


WASHINGTON -- In an effort to help battered women who assault or kill their abusing husbands or boyfriends defend themselves in court, a Maryland congresswoman yesterday proposed that Congress encourage state courts to admit expert testimony about the nature and effects of domestic violence.

Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md.-8th, said her legislation is similar to a law enacted by Maryland's General Assembly in 1991, which permits evidence of "battered spouse syndrome" to be introduced in Maryland criminal trials.

Six million U.S. women are beaten a year and 4,000 of them die. As many as 3.3 million children witness the beatings, Mrs. Morella said.

Laws such as Maryland's, however, are rare. Battered women are allowed by law to present evidence of past abuse in criminal trials in only five other states, she told members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and Judicial Administration.

Subcommittee members seemed generally supportive, and Mrs. Morella said the current political climate -- an election year in which many politicians are appealing to female voters -- is right for such legislation.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., for example, assured Mrs. Morella that she was "speaking to the choir."

The panel's chairman, New Jersey Democrat William J. Hughes, agreed. "It is critical that judges and juries understand the plight of these battered women," he said.

But Mrs. Morella and an assistant counsel to the subcommittee agreed that the legislation's biggest obstacle may be the clock.

Congress is expected to begin its summer recess next week. It won't return until early September, and then it will adjourn around Oct. 1. That does not leave much time for legislation to move through the subcommittee, the full committee, the full House and then over to the Senate.

While the legislation would not require state courts to admit expert testimony on the psychological and emotional effects beatings have on women, it would tell states the "sense of Congress" is that introduction of such testimony should be allowed.

The problem, Congressman Hughes said, is that many killings involving battered spouses are "committed during a lull in the fighting, when the partner is sleeping or his back is turned, and do not fall under the traditional models of self-defense."

Therefore, he said, juries may not get to hear crucial evidence of past beatings or of the cumulative effect they may have had.

There were two companion bills to Mrs. Morella's resolution. One would provide about $600,000 to help poor women who have been battered obtain expert testimony at their trials. The other would spend $600,000 to develop a course designed to educate judges on domestic violence issues.

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