DAILY JOURNAL NEWSWIRE ARTICLE
© 2003 The Daily Journal Corporation.
All rights reserved.
August 19, 2003
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
'Battered Women's Syndrome' Perpetuates Harmful Stereotypes of Victims
By Nausheen Hassan
Laws in all 50 states recognize some version of battered women's
syndrome, which purports to explain the psychology of battered women's
behavior. The concept is important, but for years domestic violence
experts have urged moving away from battered women's syndrome terminology.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a report in 1996 calling on
advocates to do away with the term. Instead, they believe that the
phrase "battering and its effects" better describes the true nature
of abusive relationships. States are to be commended for enacting
much-needed laws dealing with battering.
But is it asking too much to discard
antiquated and counterproductive terminology? The problem with using
the phrase battered women's syndrome is that it perpetuates stereotypes
that harm victims of battering. Battered women's syndrome implies that
an abused person must be a woman, that she must be "suffering" from
a syndrome or disease that is curable, that she has pathological problems
and that there is only one authentic version of how she is supposed
to respond to the battering. Moreover, if a victim fails to meet these
criteria, supposedly she doesn't suffer from battered women's syndrome.
These assumptions are absurd. They castigate abuse victims as cuckoo
even though battering and its effects can have serious physical, emotional,
economic, psychological and social consequences.
The syndrome is not a mental disease.
Instead, battering and its effects have a pervasive impact than can
result in many different methods of coping with the abuse. The California
legal system should lead the effort to address hopelessly outdated terminology.
Our state paved the way on domestic-violence law, but the language is
stuck in the distant past. Even People v. Humphrey, 13 Cal.4th
1073 (1996), confessed in a footnote that battered women's syndrome
is a defective term. However, it continued using the term throughout
the rest of the opinion.
The state Legislature has tried
to address the problem, as well. California Evidence Code Section 1107,
dealing with the admissibility of expert testimony on battered women's
syndrome, was amended in 2000 to rename it the provision on "battered
women's experiences." Was this a watershed moment in the history of
domestic-violence legislation, making California a pioneer into the
new millennium? Hardly. This amendment changed only the title, leaving
the remaining battered woman syndrome wording in the statute intact.
Many agree that the term is bad.
So why not get rid of it? Once the courts and lawmakers expressed their
discontent with the outdated phrase, one would assume that later statutes
or case opinions would have been affected. This, however, has not happened.
Take California Penal Code Section 1473.5, for example. Enacted in 2002,
the statute creates a new ground for submitting a petition for habeas
corpus. Petitioners can submit the writ if they were convicted of murder
for killing their abuser but were not allowed to present expert testimony
on battered women's syndrome. Why was the term used in this Section?
Because Evidence Code Section 1107 uses the phrase, despite the renaming
amendment in 2000.
While the title of Section 1107 touts its new-and-improved terminology,
the 2000 amendment had no effect on the wording of Penal Code Section
1473.5. Cases in the state courts also continue to use battered women's
syndrome terminology, despite Humphrey. The administrative branch
is equally ambivalent. The Board of Prison Terms, whose members are
appointed by the governor and oversee parole for the state correctional
system, conducts investigations into parole cases in which domestic
violence may have played a role. The board uses the term battered women's
syndrome for these investigations, even though it has acknowledged the
phrase's inadequacy. It claims to continue using the term for convenience.
In a July 25 press release, Gov. Gray Davis, announcing his support
for SB 784, which extends the sunset clause of Penal Code Section 1473.5,
described the recent habeas statute as allowing women to raise battered
women's syndrome as a legal defense.
That Davis signed the bill is laudable.
However, the ex-governor's press release unwittingly perpetuated one
of the most damaging misconceptions about battering: So-called battered
women's syndrome is a defense to murder. Battering
is not a defense to murder. In fact, it isn't a defense to anything.
However, evidence of battering is relevant for traditional defenses
that have existed in our legal traditions for centuries. For example,
self-defense is often raised to defend against murder charges. When
a battered woman kills her abuser, very often she does it in self-defense.
When expert testimony on battering and its effects is admitted into
the murder trial, it helps the jury decide whether the defendant has
met the requirements for acting in self-defense.
Expert testimony on battering can
address different defenses, as well, in addition to performing other
functions such as negating intent, rebutting prosecution theories, explaining
why the battering victim behaved in a certain manner or buttressing
the victim's credibility. To use self-defense as a defense, a defendant
must demonstrate that her actions were committed out of an honest and
reasonable fear of imminent harm. Expert testimony on battering and
its effects is indispensable for showing that her fear meets both prongs
of this test. Also, a juror may wonder why the battered woman did not
leave the relationship if she felt threatened, rather than resorting
to violence herself. An expert witness could explain that a battered
woman faces even more danger immediately after she tries to flee the
The expert also could point out
that, in the opposite scenario, in which the homicide is committed by
the abuser against the battered woman, studies indicate that the batterer
frequently escalates the level of violence against the victim in the
days and weeks immediately before killing her. This type of expert information
addresses whether the defendant's belief was both honest and reasonable.
Thus, rather than being a new, separate defense, battering evidence
is simply considered by judges and juries while evaluating traditional
defenses or other key components of a case. When it comes to embracing
a contemporary view of battering, California should be setting the trend
for the rest of the nation. We have enacted groundbreaking legislation
- Penal Code Section 1473.5 - that is unparalleled in its recognition
of how crucial battering and its effects can be in evaluating criminal
So far, we are the only state in
the country to re-examine cases of abused individuals who were convicted
of murder without the benefit of expert testimony on battering. The
California Habeas Project, a collaboration of the California Women's
Law Center, the University of Southern California Law School Post-Conviction
Justice Project, and Free Battered Women (formerly the California Coalition
for Battered Women in Prison), is working to implement this 2002 law.
The state Supreme Court has an opportunity to address the terminology
issue in an upcoming case and do away with the term battered woman syndrome.
The court has granted review in People v. Brown, 2003 WL 190790,
in which a battering issue will be addressed.
The court opinion easily could introduce a shift in the battering terminology
that we need in this state. A few sentences is all that is required,
explaining that in using "battering and its effects" the court refers
to, at a minimum, the notions underlying what was formerly called battered
Moreover, the court should stress that this shift embraces concepts
integral to understanding domestic violence that previously have been
excluded from the limiting, pathology-focused nature of battered women's
syndrome terminology. Only then will replacing battered woman syndrome
with battering and its effects truly make a practical difference in
Nausheen Hassan is the Audrey & Sydney Irmas Fellow at the California
Women's Law Center in Los Angeles and the southern California coordinator
of the Habeas Project.