Column: Abused kill in self-defense

By Dan Mollison

An article posted on the University home page Aug. 15 reported that University of Illinois law professor Kit Kinports believes that victims of batterers who kill their partners in non-violent situations should be able to justify their actions in court with a self-defense plea. Her argument is that victims who are abused over a long period of time may revert to a mental state, known as “battered woman’s syndrome,” in which they can believe that they must murder their partner in order to survive.

It may seem illogical to excuse murder committed in a non-violent situation, but examining the circumstances leading to such a murder through the eyes of a domestic violence victim can shed a different light on it. To get this perspective, it’s important to understand how “battered woman’s syndrome” works.

Lawrence Wrightsman, author of Psychology and the Legal System, states that the syndrome is a collection of symptoms that appear in victims who have been abused over a long period of time. The syndrome progresses in stages. First, the victim develops a sense of learned helplessness, in which she believes that there is nothing she can do to escape from the batterer. Then she becomes more emotionally dependant on the abuser when he threatens her not to tell her loved ones or the police about his behavior. Increasingly isolated, she becomes more fearful of the batterer’s threats and attacks, culminating in a belief that the attacker will eventually kill her.

There are a few aspects of these preemptive attacks that I believe set them apart from normal violent encounters. One is the fact that the abuse suffered by battered woman’s syndrome victims is an ongoing process, not an isolated event. Domestic violence is about one person trying to control another; when an abuser has been controlling someone during a period of years, they’re not just going to stop for no reason. Abusers will feel the need to control their victims until they seek help. When domestic violence victims respond to their abusers with violence, it’s because they see no end to their torment in sight.

Another alarming aspect of these situations is the severity of the violence that victims experience. Some examples of violence in the cases that I discovered include repeated beatings and rapings, the partner repeatedly pointing a gun to their head and yelling at them, “I’m going to kill you, bitch,” and partners threatening to kill the victim’s children in front of them if they went to the police or loved ones for help. These incidents are horrifying, but what’s really striking about them is that in these cases they take place continuously over the course of several years. And if someone who has beaten you during the course of years tells you repeatedly that they’re going to kill you, why shouldn’t you believe them?

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Critics of Kinports’ argument assert that because these murders are often committed at some time other than during a beating, a battered woman could leave or call the police rather than act with violence. It is true that a domestic violence victim could certainly take either of these routes, but I understand why they might be hesitant to. Leaving is a way for the victim to take back control, but leaving the abuser or seeking help could possibly escalate the situation. For victims of domestic violence, however, leaving is by far the safest option in the long run.

In no way would I ever agree with a victim’s decision to murder their abuser. Leaving them is always the best option, and I hope that if you find yourself in an abusive relationship that you leave and seek help as soon as possible. But I can see how a victim afflicted with battered woman’s syndrome could be convinced that she must kill or be killed. These victims should be able to plea self-defense.