In 1911, the first form of “battered woman syndrome” was used as a defense in Canada. Angelina Napolitano, a 28-year-old woman, killed her abusive husband with an axe. Evidence of the abuse she suffered was not allowed at trial. Angelina was sentenced to death, but in the wait for her hanging, her story garnered a large group of supporters, who argued that the trial judge was wrong to ignore evidence of abuse that spanned the length of her relationship with her husband. The federal cabinet commuted her sentence to life imprisonment.
Since then, battered woman syndrome has become a mainstay in Canadian law. It is based on the work of Dr. Lenore Walker, who argues that a woman who has been abused by her partner over a long period of time begins to “learn helplessness” – as a response to the violence she essentially gives up trying to fight back. The abuse, Walker argues, follows predictable patterns, and as a result the woman can often sense when the abuser is about to launch into a vicious attack. In light of this theory, women who killed their batterer began trying to use battered woman syndrome as a way to explain how their actions fit under self-defense.
In 1990, in a landmark case called R. v. Lavallee, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the admissibility of evidence about “battered woman syndrome” to explain how a woman who kills her batterer might be acting in self-defense. Speaking for the court, Justice Bertha Wilson recognized that expert testimony about the effects of battered woman syndrome is useful because it is difficult for jurors to understand the effects of battering. Many misconceptions about battered woman syndrome, Justice Wilson said, are common:
A woman who comes before a judge or jury with the claim that she has been battered and suggests that this may be a relevant factor in evaluating her subsequent actions still faces the prospect of being condemned by popular mythology about domestic violence. Either she was not as badly beaten as she claims or she would have left the man long ago. Or, if she was battered that severely, she must have stayed out of some masochistic enjoyment of it.
Over 25 years has passed since evidence of battered woman syndrome was accepted under self-defense. The Supreme Court of Canada recently handed down R. v. Ryan – this decision has drawn media attention and some have commented that it sets a precedent for a lower standard of evidence for domestic violence. This lower standard, they have argued, means that it is easier for a woman to fake battered woman syndrome, and “get away with murder.” I think many misconceptions Justice Wilson pointed out in Lavallee may yet stand.
Misconception 1: “Battered woman syndrome is an easy way out for women to kill their husbands, and evidence of abuse has a lower burden of proof.”
The accused person has the burden of proof. This means that they need to give the evidence to show not only that they were abused, but also that they were suffering from battered woman syndrome. This can include personal testimony, eyewitness and corroboratory testimony, direct evidence, psychological testimony, and expert testimony on battered woman syndrome.
In addition to the high practical requirements for evidence, the accused woman must also show she acted in response to a reasonable fear, since battered woman syndrome falls as a defense under the umbrella of self-defense. This means she needs to show that she suffers from battered woman syndrome, and in light of that, her actions were reasonable.
Of the five major Canadian cases in which women who killed their abusers tried to introduce some form of evidence of battered woman syndrome, one was acquitted (Lavallee), one had proceedings stayed (Ryan), one was found guilty of a lesser charge (R. v. Sheehan), and two were convicted of murder (Napolitano and R. v. Malott). Battered woman syndrome is not necessarily widely or successfully used in courts.
Finally, Wilson J. notes in Lavallee that battered woman syndrome is not an automatic out for women who kill their husbands. She quotes Phyllis Crocker:
The issue in a self-defence trial is not whether the defendant is a battered woman, but whether she justifiably killed her husband. The defendant introduces testimony to offer the jury an explanation of reasonableness that is an alternative to the prosecution’s stereotypic explanations. It is not intended to earn her the status of a battered woman, as if that would make her not guilty.
Misconception 2: “Women will leave a relationship that is abusive, and so women who kill as a response to abuse haven’t done enough to protect themselves, or perhaps enjoy the violence.”
The Canadian Women’s Foundation lists many reasons why a woman might not leave her abuser:
- Her abuser has threatened to kill her, to kill himself, to kill their children, or to kill the family pet. Approximately 25% of women who were murdered by their intimate partner were murdered when they left the relationship – these are often not empty threats.
- She is financially dependent on her partner.
- She has strong beliefs about keeping her family or relationship together.
- Her relatives, friends, and in-laws do not believe her or insists she keeps her family together.
- She loves her abuser.
- Her abused insists he will change and she believes him.
- She does not believe she can find better, find the courage to leave, or manage on her own.
Misconception 3: “Once women leave their husbands and are at a distance from them, they are safe.”
The Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that a woman is more susceptible to violence when she is leaving her abuser. Women who have been battered for a long period of time are generally more attuned to when an increase in violence will occur, according to Lenore Walker.
It’s important not to make assumptions about how abuse occurs or how it affects the victim. Even from 1000 km away, an abuser can still be financially, emotionally and mentally controlling and violent toward a woman. Manipulation and control do not require physical presence. They can occur through control of financial assets, personal information, child protection, or legal claims.
Misconception 4: “Law enforcement responds adequately to domestic violence calls.”
The Ontario Women’s Justice Network website refers to a number of issues with police responses to domestic violence calls.
- Despite mandatory charging requirements in Ontario, charges are not always adequately applied. Mandatory charging requirements also mean that those victimized who call the police may also be charged with domestic violence themselves.
- When abusers are charged, they are often released on poorly enforced bail conditions.
- Where children are present, domestic violence calls lead to a report to child protective services. Thus, those who report abuse may have their children taken away from them.
- Family court restraining orders and peace bonds are not always well-enforced.