It has been 30 years since the General Assembly enacted Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud Proc. § 10-916 (2020) (hereinafter Cts. & Jud. Proc.) recognizing the “Battered Spouse Syndrome” as a defense to homicide and assault in Maryland. Since then, courts have wrestled with the parameters of the defense. In State v. Elzey (No. 3, Sept. Term 2020) (Jan. 29, 2021), the Court of Appeals was asked a new but important question: whether a jury must find that the batterer (the victim in the criminal case) repeatedly abused the defendant (the battered “spouse”) before it can consider abuse of the defendant by others when weighing a battered spouse defense.
To reach this issue, the Court first had to accept a significant ruling of the Court of Special Appeals in an earlier case—that in appropriate circumstances, evidence of abuse by persons other than the decedent can be relevant and, therefore, admissible when a battered spouse defense is raised. Wallace-Bey v. State, 234 Md. App. 501 (2017). The Court then determined that once admitted, a jury may consider all the evidence of abuse—including the impact of abuse by prior partners—when determining whether the defendant was suffering from the syndrome at the time of the alleged offense.
The facts of the case were essentially uncontroverted. Defendant Latoya Elzey grabbed a knife during an argument with her boyfriend, Migail Hunter. Within minutes, Hunter was dead from a stab wound to the heart. A witness testified that while in another room, she heard Elzey asking Hunter to stop hitting her, Hunter saying, ”go ahead and do it,” and Hunter’s body hitting the floor. Id. at 3. Elzey was charged with first-degree murder and related offenses.
Elzey never denied killing Hunter, but claimed that she did so in self-defense. Her expert, a psychiatrist, testified that Elzey suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression at the time of the killing, both stemming from violence suffered as a child at the hands of her grandmother, and as an adult by several domestic partners, including Hunter.
The psychiatrist was of the opinion that Elzey’s PTSD and depression were consistent with Battered Spouse Syndrome, itself a form of PTSD in which an individual who has experienced repeated abuse by an intimate partner becomes depressed and develops “learned helplessness,” or a feeling that they are unable to change their situation. Id. at 6, It is also common for such victims to develop, in the words of the Court, the ability to “sense the escalation in the frequency and intensity of the violence,” enabling them to become “expert at recognizing the warning signs of an impending disaster from [their] partner—signs frequently imperceptible to outsiders.” Id. at 19 (citations omitted).
The State did not dispute the historical facts underlying the expert’s opinion, but disagreed with Elzey on the application of the law to these facts. This disagreement played out in the parties’ requests for jury instructions. The State requested the following instruction:
You have . . . heard expert testimony that the Defendant exhibits the characteristics consistent with battered spouse syndrome. You must determine, based upon a consideration of all the evidence, whether the Defendant was a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse by the victim, and if so[,] whether she suffered from battered spouse syndrome.
Id. at 12 (emphasis added).
Elzey’s attorney objected, and asked the trial court to insert the words “and others” after “the victim”, to require that the jury find Elzey to have been a victim of repeated abuse “by the victim and others” before considering whether she suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome. Id. at 13. The trial judge sided with the State, expressing the belief that under Maryland law, “she is not allowed to murder her current boyfriend because four boyfriends ago beat her up.” Id. at 11. The judge gave the instruction requested by the State. Elzey was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
Both appellate courts took issue with the instruction and what it required of the jury, ultimately concluding:
[W]here there is evidence that the defendant was abused by one or more third parties before the decedent allegedly abused her, and an expert opines that all of the defendant’s abusive relationships contributed to her development of Battered Spouse Syndrome, a trial court may not instruct the jury to make a predicate finding that the decedent repeatedly abused the defendant, before the jury may consider all the evidence that goes to whether the defendant was suffering from the Syndrome at the time of the alleged offense.
Id. at 32.
The Court began its analysis by explaining the limited purpose of Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-916, a statute enacted simply to allow a trial court to admit evidence, including expert testimony, pertinent to Battered Spouse Syndrome and the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the offense in connection with a claim of self-defense. Id. at 18. The statute did not create a new defense to murder. “Rather, evidence of the Battered Spouse Syndrome is offered in support of the state of mind element of perfect or imperfect self-defense, i.e., it is offered to prove the honesty and reasonableness of the defendant’s belief that he or she was in imminent danger at the time of the offense.” Id. (citation omitted). The statute makes no mention of abuse by anyone other than the defendant’s victim.
The Court recognized that when compared to more traditional notions of self-defense, analysis of the Battered Spouse Syndrome “requires a more careful and sophisticated look at the notion of imminent threat and what constitutes ‘aggression,’ of understanding that certain conduct that might not be regarded as imminently dangerous by the public at large can cause someone who has been repeatedly subjected to and hurt by that conduct before to honestly, even if unreasonably, regard it as imminently threatening.” Id. at 20 (citation omitted). The Court noted that the defining features of the syndrome—learned helplessness and heightened sensitivity to signs of escalation—can make information about prior abuse by others central to evaluating the defendant’s state of mind when responding to specific stimuli. Id. at 23. “[E]vidence of prior abuse,” therefore, “can be relevant to the determination whether a defendant suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome at the time of the alleged offense.” Id. at 27.
The problem with the jury instruction, the Court found, was that it required the jury first to find that Hunter repeatedly abused Elzey, and only then (“if so”) could it go on to determine whether Elzey suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome. “[R]equiring the jury to find that Hunter repeatedly abused Elzey physically and psychologically before the jury could consider whether Elzey suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome . . . left open the possibility that the jury would never consider [the expert’s] opinion that Elzey suffered from the Syndrome.” Id. at 27–8 (citations omitted). The expert testimony and evidence of prior abuse, however, was properly admitted, and “the trial court erred by creating an obstacle to the jury’s use of that evidence. . . .” Id. at 29.
The source of confusion was Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-916 itself, which provides that when a defendant “raises the issue that the defendant was . . . suffering from the Battered Spouse Syndrome as a result of the past course of conduct of the individual who is the victim of the crime for which the defendant has been charged, the court may admit . . . [e]vidence of repeated physical and psychological abuse of the defendant perpetrated by an individual who is the victim of a crime for which the defendant has been charged,” as well as “[e]xpert testimony on the Battered Spouse Syndrome.” Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-916(b)(1) and (2).
The statute, the Court concluded, merely provides a threshold standard for admissibility of evidence of abuse, “a question of law that is solely for the trial court to decide.” Id. at 26. “Indeed, it does not address the role of the trier of fact in any respect,” and certainly does not require the jury to make any predicate findings before it can consider evidence that has been properly admitted. Id. Elzey raised the issue of abuse by Hunter so the expert testimony offered by Elzey and, under Wallace-Bey, evidence of abuse by others, was properly admitted. Once admitted, the jury can consider it, and the trial court erred in suggesting otherwise.
Two judges concurred, satisfied with the Court’s interpretation and application of Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-916 on these facts. They wondered aloud what might happen when faced with a situation in which a defendant who does not claim to have been abused by her victim seeks to introduce evidence of abuse by others in support of a battered partner self-defense claim. Id. (McDonald, J. concurring) at 2. The concurring opinion suggested that such evidence may be “more pertinent to a plea of ‘not criminally responsible’ than to a claim of self-defense.” Id. at 4. It is unclear whether they were suggesting a shift from a self-defense paradigm to lack of criminal capacity for all battered spouse claims, but by raising the question they expose the rather narrow doctrinal line between the two defenses. The majority expressly reserved on this question. Id. at 30, n. 13.