Admissibility of Battered-spouse-syndrome Evidence in Alaska

JurisdictionAlaska,United States
Publication year2015
CitationVol. 32


Alaska Law Review
Volume 32, No. 1, June 2015
Cited: 32 Alaska L. Rev. 153


Morgan Abbott [*]


Despite the exceptionally high rates of domestic violence in Alaska, Alaskan jurisprudence affords battered women varied and sparse guidance for the use of their experience as a battered woman in criminal trials. Of the minimal guidance offered, none arises in the form of a binding Alaska Supreme Court opinion, rule of evidence, or governing statute. As one of the few states lacking established jurisprudence on evidence of battered spouse syndrome, Alaska would benefit from a clearer rule regarding the admissibility of battered-spouse-syndrome evidence. This rule would interpret "reasonableness" to include a "reasonable battered woman" standard when the relevant party was battered and claims a related altered perception or extreme emotional disturbance colored her actions. Under this standard, the consequences of the battering inform and define the reasonable person against whom the battered woman is judged.


Over one-third of women in the United States experience domestic violence at the hands of an intimate partner. [1] In Alaska, this statistic is even higher: approximately half of the women in Alaska suffer domestic violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes. [2] Indeed, Alaska ranks first in the United States for intimate partner homicide. [3] However, out of the 220 rural communities in Alaska, only one has a shelter for domestic violence victims. [4] Alaska Native women are especially vulnerable-although they make up less than twenty percent of the state's overall population, they represent nearly half of all reported rape victims. [5] And until very recently, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) [6] excluded Alaska Native tribes from provisions specifically designed to expand tribal jurisdiction over domestic violence crimes, leaving many Alaska Native women without recourse if they were assaulted. [7]

Despite their prevalence, sexual assault and domestic violence are two of the most underreported violent crimes due to fear, shame, loyalty to family members, and intimate relations with the perpetrator. [8] Furthermore, it is difficult to prosecute domestic violence crimes, even those that are actually reported, because the offense often intertwines with familial or emotional relationships. [9] Victims may hesitate to testify due to shame or fear, and the fact that physical evidence is infrequently documented often results in the case becoming a "he said-she said" argument. [10]

Notwithstanding the high rates of intimate partner abuse in Alaska, courts have said little about the role of domestic violence evidence in supporting affirmative criminal defenses, including self-defense claims, in the state. These defenses would allow defendants accused of homicide to receive a lesser punishment upon showing that they were battered by the murder victim. Additionally, Alaska has no binding precedent, statutes, or rules of evidence governing the admissibility of evidence of battered spouse syndrome or other evidence of domestic violence. [11] This needs to change.

Part I of this Note provides a general overview of the battered spouse syndrome framework and describes its functions and roles in criminal cases. Part II details the development of battered-spouse-syndrome jurisprudence in Alaska. Finally, Part III proposes a framework for allowing Alaskans to admit battered-spouse-syndrome evidence in criminal trials.


Battered spouse syndrome, also referred to as battered wife syndrome or battered woman's syndrome, is the physical and psychological condition of a person subject to repeated forceful, physical, or psychological abusive behavior by an intimate partner. [12] Battered spouse syndrome has been identified as a sub-category of post-traumatic stress disorder. [13] Courts began recognizing the relevance of battered-spouse-syndrome evidence in criminal prosecutions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. [14] Evidence of battered spouse syndrome, with or without an official diagnosis, can explain the presence of a series of traits and characteristics that are common to women who have been physically or emotionally abused by dominant male figures over a prolonged time period. [15]

According to experts, a relationship in which an individual suffers from battered spouse syndrome cycles between three phases. In the first-the tension-building stage-minor domestic violence episodes transpire. [16] The second stage is characterized by violent, uncontrollable, or brutal abuse. [17] Following that abuse, in the final stage, the batterer asks for forgiveness, demonstrates loving and caring behavior, and promises that the abuse will not reoccur. [18] Couples then reconcile, but the cycle begins anew. [19]

A. The General Role of Evidence of Battered Spouse Syndrome in Criminal Cases

Battered spouse syndrome is not a stand-alone defense to a criminal charge and does not automatically compel acquittal. Instead, the battered defendant introduces evidence of her syndrome in support of another recognized defense, [20] as a characteristic of the relevant reasonable person standard, or to demonstrate her mental state at the time of the alleged offense. [21]

Evidence of battered spouse syndrome does not remove any question of fact from the jury because, in most jurisdictions, the expert does not testify specifically as to whether the particular defendant demonstrates characteristics of battered spouse syndrome. Rather, the expert assists in dispelling an ordinary layperson-juror's perception that a woman in a battering relationship can leave at any time. [22] Because the average layperson-juror has a minimal understanding of the conduct of a woman in an abusive or domestic violence situation, expert testimony assists the jury in establishing the proper framework with which to decide its questions of fact. [23] Courts have often admitted expert testimony explaining the nature and effect of battered spouse syndrome, just as expert testimony is admissible to explain the mental state of hostages, prisoners of war, and other long-term, life-threatening conditions. [24]

B. Admissibility of Battered-Spouse-Syndrome Evidence: When is it Allowed?

There are four main circumstances in which courts have historically permitted defendants to introduce evidence of battered spouse syndrome: claims of self-defense, claims of provocation, mitigation of sentencing, and appeals claiming ineffective counsel. Each of these is discussed in greater detail below.

1. Battered-Spouse-Syndrome Evidence and its Role in Self-Defense Claims: The Reasonableness of the Defendant's Perception of Danger, Imminence, and Options

Battered women may offer expert testimony regarding battered spouse syndrome to support a defense of insanity, diminished capacity, heat of passion, or duress. [25] Defendants most commonly, however, offer battered-spouse-syndrome evidence to support a self-defense claim. [26] An individual may justifiably use deadly force in self-defense against another if she reasonably believes that she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm at the hands of an attacker. [27] A majority of United States jurisdictions judge defendants using the standard of a reasonable person in the person's situation, but the nuances of this standard vary. [28]

Defendants face several problems of proof in establishing self-defense using evidence of battered spouse syndrome. Most notably, defendants must demonstrate why they perceived imminent danger in a situation where a non-battered person may not believe the danger to be imminent. [29] This requires breaking down the layperson-jurors' previously held stereotypes or misconceptions about domestic violence. Defendants establish this imminence factor by demonstrating that battered women become sensitive to indicators of forthcoming violence by their batterers. [30] As a result, while perhaps not subject to an immediate threat of harm at the exact moment she used force, the defendant knew, by virtue of her intimate partner's past violent acts, that violence was approaching. [31] If she waited until the violence began, it may be too late to defend herself. [32]

This problem of proof is exacerbated when the defendant kills her intimate partner from behind, or while he is asleep. It is difficult for a jury to understand how there could have been an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to the defendant when her batterer was resting. Some states preclude using evidence of battered spouse syndrome to support a self-defense claim when the defendant kills or assaults a sleeping or resting intimate partner. [33] In states that allow such evidence, the defendant must explain to the jury how her status as a battered woman influenced her perceptions of imminent danger and the need to use deadly force. [34]

Unlike typical self-defense cases, defense experts offering evidence of battered spouse syndrome emphasize past occurrences as the lens through which to interpret the details surrounding the alleged crime. Individuals suffering from battered spouse syndrome may genuinely and reasonably believe that they are in imminent danger, justifying the use...

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