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Survivors of abuse behind bars

By Lisa Brody
News Editor
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In Michigan, along with California and a few other states, an expert witness can testify to a condition, such as battered spouse syndrome, explaining the symptoms, noting statistics and traits, but cannot make the connection to state that the person on trial has the condition. The People v. Christel, a sexual abuse case which argued before the Michigan Supreme Court in 1995, determined the admissibility of expert testimony regarding battered woman syndrome when offered to a jury to understand the complainants actions and testimony in tolerating abuse over a period of years, but the witness cannot make the connection to the individual herself.

"Battered person syndrome it's a diagnosable condition, a psychological condition, so to say it's not admissible in court is unusual or unique," noted David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in Washington DC. "It is up to the court to determine if it is an actual defense, and that is the role of the judge. That is a legal ruling where, at times, the underlying facts of the case don't support the admissibility of that defense."

LaBahn said that in California, where he is from, just like in Michigan, "an expert cannot testify to the ultimate conclusion. That is the role and responsibility of the jury."

He said that despite what defendants and some defense attorneys attest, prosecuting attorneys recognize self-defense. "It's whether it's a full and complete defense 'I killed him because he was about to kill me.' The second thing, that concept of imperfect self-defense, moves it down to manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter. The key with imperfect self-defense, is the mental defense, that takes it out of voluntary into involuntary. The mental state is definitely not murder.

"It's just traditional homicide law we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, was that the reason she killed him, or was it to get the house, the car, or to be with another guy."

He added that often defendants try to utilize a double-edge sword. "If the wife is the defendant, and the husband is the victim, she can't have the dual defense of, 'I didn't do it, but if I did do it, it was because of self-defense because of battered person syndrome.'"

LaBahn said, "The OJ Simpson case (the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994) brought attention of domestic abuse to the forefront the facts of battered individuals, and that lead nationally to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), where dollars are spent nationally to train law enforcement, prosecutors, to provide to shelters."

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