Battered Woman Syndrome as Defense Essay

Cheap Custom Writing Service

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) was first introduced in 1977 by clinical social worker Lenore Walker. Battered woman syndrome is defined by a series of symptoms which occur after a woman experiences prolonged physical, sexual, or psychological abuse by an intimate partner. This form of prolonged abuse includes an exertion of power and control through coercing the victim to do what the abuser wants without regard to the victim’s own feelings. Battered woman syndrome can also explain why victims of prolonged abuse often kill their partners instead of leaving them. Today BWS is categorized as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatic events which can elicit PTSD are commonly unexpected, cause disruption in a person’s life, and are perceived as out of the victim’s control. Battered woman syndrome is increasingly used as a legal defense.

Women who suffer from battered woman syndrome develop coping skills to counterbalance a perceived lack of ability to escape chronic traumatic abuse. Response to threats of danger, defined as trauma triggers, involve an emotional response that affects a sufferer’s levels of neurochemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline.

When trauma triggers are evoked the woman will become hyper aroused, then utilize her unique coping skills to mentally escape the traumatic experience. This perceived inability to escape an abuser is defined as learned helplessness. Perceived inability to escape abuse from an intimate partner is commonly reinforced by the batterer threatening harm to the victim’s family or the victim’s belief that law enforcement is unable to protect her. Learned helplessness can lead a person suffering from BWS to perceive that the only method of escape is to kill the abuser. This common response for BWS sufferers can result in violent recourse when no imminent threat is present, such as when the abuser is asleep or heavily intoxicated.


Learned helplessness is defined as the loss of the ability to predict a particular outcome to an action. Learned helplessness is derived from learning theory and provides theoretical justification for its inclusion in battered woman syndrome. One who suffers from learned helplessness through BWS is believed to maintain a level of human depression exhibiting a variety of similar symptoms. These symptoms include the inability to predict the outcome of one’s actions, which results in a distorted view of reality. Symptoms of learned helplessness such as illness, phobias, or loss of sleep mimic symptoms of BWS and PTSD.

In addition to the theoretical concept of learned helplessness, the Walker cycle theory is also relevant to the inclusion of battered woman syndrome as a defense for criminal acts. The Walker cycle theory defines three stages of intimate partner abuse: the first phase is the tension building phase, which involves verbal battery and increasing tension between both parties; the second phase involves the batterer’s violent and uncontrollable rage; and the third phase includes the batterer’s expression of regret, apology, and commitment to nonviolence in the future, commonly referred to as the “honeymoon” phase. This cyclical theory addresses the victim’s perception of the harm the abuser can inflict as confirmed by experience with the batterer’s acts of previous violence. The Walker cycle theory also explains a victim’s perception of her physical inability to protect herself from the batterer based on her knowledge of the batterer’s extensive violent history. The third phase of Walker’s theory further reinforces why the abuse victim does not leave, that is, because the batterer manipulates the victim into perceiving the abuse as an aberration justifying providing the abuser with another chance.

The first and second phases of the Walker cycle theory are important in the legal defense of battered woman syndrome because they explain BWS sufferers’ tendency to attack their batterers at times when they are incapacitated. Those who suffer from BWS view themselves as helpless in their ability to defend themselves and seek opportunities where the batterer is unable to overpower the victim or prohibit her escape from the dangerous situation. Furthermore, this element of the Walker cycle theory explains the reasonableness those suffering from BWS find in the aggressive violence imposed on their batterer. A woman who views herself as confined in a cycle of potentially deadly violence may view a response with deadly violence as the only method of escape from the chronic abuse.

Legal Defense of BWS

The legal defense of self-defense is defined as an act to defend one’s self against a reasonable fear of bodily harm that the actor is in imminent danger of receiving. Battered woman syndrome as a legal defense does not commonly fall under the category of self-defense because the threat to the criminal actor’s safety may not be imminent. Defense for BWS is categorized as a duress defense. The duress defense is defined as a criminal act that may be justified under the law if it is committed under duress, such as the threat of imminent danger or a reasonable belief that death or serious bodily harm may occur. Conditional to the duress defense is that the perpetrator acting under duress must not maintain any potential for reasonable escape from the perceived risk of death or serious bodily harm. Furthermore, the threat of harm must be present and cannot be projected to occur in the future, and the possibility of seeking help avoid causing harm must be pursued in lieu of committing the criminal act. The final condition of a duress defense is that the offense does not extend to homicide; the criminal act can be committed to eliminate the threat of danger but with the exception of deadly force.

In the 1990s battered woman syndrome gained interest due to its increased use as a defense and public support for female offenders who had suffered chronic abuse from their victim. Legal support of BWS was found in statutory additions to existing forms of defense or revisions to legal defenses that allow introduction of past abuse and a defendant’s BWS diagnosis into an accused’s defense. Most commonly jurisdictions did not modify statutes but allowed evidence of BWS to be introduced through expert testimony. Expert testimony introducing a BWS defense has been used both to support the battered woman syndrome defense and to diminish the defendant’s credibility if she does not fit stereotypes of BWS sufferers.

Introduction of battered woman syndrome evidence through expert testimony is held to the rules of evidence standard established in Daubert v. United States and Frye v. United States. The Daubert standard establishes that scientific evidence from either a soft or a hard science that is admissible in court must meet the standard from scientific knowledge, including use of scientific methodology and procedures. The Frye standard provides a more lenient standard, finding scientific evidence admissible if it receives general acceptance within the scientific community. Use of BWS through expert testimony has met both these standards in a variety of legal defenses. Although battered woman syndrome been found acceptable in a variety of legal defenses its theoretical background and association with soft sciences has led to questions of its relevancy as a defense.

Ultimately, the use of battered woman syndrome as a duress defense is an attempt to legally define the perceived reasonableness that one who suffers from chronic abuse may maintain. Proponents of the use of the BWS as a duress defense support introduction of this evidence as a method of fully informing jurors of the standard of reasonableness that the offending female perceived at the time of her offense. For example, in State v. Wanrow the objective test to illustrate to jurors the special circumstances was fulfilled through establishing the defendant’s knowledge of the victim’s lengthy violent history. Furthermore, the defendant’s level of helplessness due to a broken leg was introduced to illustrate her inability to defend herself from the chronic abuse suffered from the victim. The reasonableness standard established allowed the jury to view the defendant’s action as reasonable according to the defendant’s unique circumstances.


  1. Callahan, A. R. “Will the ‘Real’ Battered Woman Please Stand Up?” American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, v.3/117 (1994).
  2. Faigman, D. L. “The Battered Woman Syndrome and Self-Defense: A Legal and Empirical Dissent.” Virginia Law Review, v.72/3 (1986).
  3. Ferraro, K. J. “The Words Change, but the Melody Lingers: The Persistence of the Battered Woman Syndrome in Criminal Cases Involving Battered Women.” Violence Against Women, v.9 (2003).
  4. Klotter, J. C. and J. M. Pollock. Criminal Law. 8th ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing, 2006.
  5. Savage, J. “Battered Woman Syndrome.” The Georgetown Journal of Gender and Law, v.7/761, (2006).
  6. Walker, Lenore E. Battered Woman Syndrome. 3rd ed. New York: Springer Publishing, 2009.
  7. Walker, Lenore E. “Battered Woman Syndrome Empirical Findings.” Annals New York Academy of Sciences, v.1087 (2006).

This example Battered Woman Syndrome as Defense Essay is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need a custom essay or research paper on this topic please use our writing services. offers reliable custom essay writing services that can help you to receive high grades and impress your professors with the quality of each essay or research paper you hand in.

See also:


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality

Special offer!