The right to self-defense is a large topic of debate amongst lawyers, clients, and the courts. While people may believe that they have a right to protect themselves, their families, or their property against harm is a right they have, that is not always the case. In order to claim self-defense, one has to feel that his or her life is in danger. Hill and Hill (2019) state that self-defense is a reasonable action taken against someone to protect yourself if you feel that your life is at risk. Sangero (2006) suggests that the self-defense plea is common amongst people that have been accused of assault, battery, or homicide. However, self-defense can be viewed differently amongst varying states. Each state has specific guidelines as to what can be classified as self-defense. In cases where women that suffer from battered woman syndrome, one will see an increase in self-defense pleas if these women happen to murder their abusive partner. A battered woman can plead self-defense depending on the circumstances. Included in this paper are two cases where a battered woman pleaded self-defense.
Charles F. Glassman once stated, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you…unless you believe them”. People would like to think that they have the right to defend themselves if they, their family, or their property is being threated. While that may be ideal, this is not actually the case. There are limited reasons as to why and how a person can defend themselves in certain situations. However, what happens when a situation arises and it does not meet these criteria? In this paper I will address the legal concept of self-defense, how most states view self-defense, and if a woman suffering from battered women syndrome can claim self-defense when she murders her abusive partner.
First, the legal concept of self-defense is “the use of reasonable force to protect oneself or members of the family from bodily harm from the attack of an aggressor, if the defender has reason to believe in danger”. In legal matters, self-defense is a common defense used by someone who has been accused of assault, battery, or homicide. In order to claim a self-defense plea, there must be a significant and immediate threat to one’s self or property. Self-defense may be used to protect one’s self from harm or immediate danger of attack. However, force that was used in self-defense cannot be used to justify excessive force against one’s attacker. When someone attempts a lethal attack, with the intention to murder, great force in self-defense can be justified. In our modern legal system, self-defense can be determined by the correlation between the aggressor and the victim. The force of attack, the force of defense, whether a person can prevent injury while defending him or herself, and if the injuries to the aggressor are reasonable as defensive force are the factors that are taken into consideration. Self-defense can also be used if someone is defending property from destruction or theft but only if there is personal danger. This is known as the “castle doctrine”.
Second, how do most states view self-defense? Politics and government views affect each state’s view point on self-defense differently. When it comes to the “castle doctrine,” only a few states addressed the protection from prosecuting a home owner that used deadly force against someone whom entered the person’s residence unlawfully. In the 1980s, a couple states addressed the issues regarding the immunity from prosecution in use of deadly force against another who unlawfully and forcibly enters a person’s residence. On April 5, 2005, Florida passed a law related to castle doctrine, expanding on that premise with “stand your ground”.
The “Stand your ground” doctrine expanded on the matters that were related to self-defense and included the duty to retreat. Florida’s law states “a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony”. Florida is not the only state that has the “stand your ground” doctrine. Roughly ten other states uphold this doctrine and they include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. In 2011, Pennsylvania revised this law and know it distinguishes the use of deadly force outside one’s work place, home, or vehicle. The correction states that someone that is attacked in these locations cannot use deadly force unless he feared his life and had credible and reasonable belief that he would be injured or killed.
It also states that the victim cannot seek safety. Idaho took the law in the opposite direction. In 2018, they expanded the definition of what is justifiable homicide to not only include defending one’s home but also defending vehicle or work space. In about twenty-two states, civil immunity can be granted under certain self-defense situations. These states include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee West Virginia and Wisconsin. The other six states, which include Hawaii, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota and Tennessee, state that these “fixes” would not be affected by the requirements of the self-defense law. Currently, the repeal to revisit these laws have not progressed. However, woman suffering from battered woman syndrome use the plea of self-defense when she kills her husband even if there is no immediate danger to herself or others.
Third, what is battered woman syndrome? According to Merriam Webster battered woman syndrome is defined as, “the highly variable symptom complex of physical and psychological injuries exhibited by a woman repeatedly abused especially physically by her mate”. There is a large controversy regarding women engaging in violet behavior towards their partners who have abused them. When battered women fight back it can be called “husband abuse” or “self-defense” depending on the conditions of how the victim and the abuser acted within the situation. Data suggests that the most common reason for women to engage in violence was for the act of self-defense. Women who claim to have battered woman syndrome usually suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These women have experienced many forms of abuse such as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. However, women that have been abused show more than just the typical Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder responses. Studies show that when domestic events occur between a woman and her abusive partner her body experiences physical and psychological changes. When the woman starts to recognize the man’s escalating anger she will become physiologically aroused with fear. The autonomic nervous system is then activated. Neurotransmitters and stress hormones are released to produce hyperarousal. In that split moment, her body will assess the situation and her sympathetic nervous system response is activated. Her “fight or flight” instinct is triggered and she will either flea emotionally or physically from the situation. This in turn will also allow her to cope with the situation. The woman may also use other forms of coping strategies to help her survive her ordeal. These coping strategies include, but are not limited to, minimization and/or denial, depression, repression or blocked memories, dissociation, or the union of all these symptoms. Studies show that in situations where the woman is exposed to repeated trauma, such as domestic violence, they believe that they cannot escape so they learn how to become the helpless victim. This is known as learned helplessness and it progresses differently for each person. In some extreme cases of battered woman syndrome, women feel so trapped that the only way out of their situation is to murder their abusive partner.
Fourth, is it justifiable that a battered woman can kill her husband and use the self-defense plea? It depends on the circumstances, the judge, the evidence, and how good of a defense the person has. In the case of Angelina Napolitano, who at the time was a twenty-eight-year-old Italian mother of four, pleaded self-defense after she killed her husband with an axe. On April 16, 1911, Napolitano took an ax, went up to the bedroom where her husband laid asleep, and killed him. Napolitano admitted to the murder of her husband and stated that there was prolonged abuse towards her. She also stated that she feared for her life because her husband had stabbed her six months prior to the murder. The judge, however, did not find that evidence to be admissible to the trial and convicted Napolitano of murder. Napolitano was sentenced to hang but after much protest her conviction was lessened to life in prison.
In the case of Angelique Lyn Lavallee v. Her majesty the Queen, who at the time was twenty-two, pleaded self-defense after fatally shooting Kevin Rust. Lavallee and Rust were common law partners and after a heated argument Lavallee shot Rust in the back of the head as he walked away. Lavallee claimed that she was frequently abused by Rust and a psychiatrist testified at her court hearing affirming the allegations. The psychiatrist stated that Lavallee felt trapped and she was unable to escape the situation. He also testified that her shooting Rust was a desperate act because she sincerely thought that Rust would have killed her that night. Lavallee was acquitted of second-degree murder due the jury believing that she was acting out of self-defense. However, the verdict was overturned and sent back for a retrial. The Lavallee case went to the Supreme Court where they concluded that the psychiatrist’s testimony should be allowed to be heard before the court. The court recognized that battered woman syndrome is a legitimate defense.
In conclusion, while people may believe that they have a right to protect themselves, their families, or their property against harm is a right they have, that is not always the case. In order to claim self-defense, one has to feel that his or her life is in danger. Even then they cannot take lethal action or use the “self-defense” plea as a means to kill someone if they no longer pose a threat. Each state has its own laws regarding to self-defense and when it can and cannot be used. In the cases of battered women, pleading self-defense can be a slippery slope. I personally believe that a battered woman should only use lethal force when she or her children are in immediate danger and the only way to survive the situation is to murder the partner while the abuse is happening.