State v. Riker, Battered Women Under Duress: the Concept the Washington Supreme Court Could Not Grasp

JurisdictionWashington,United States
CitationVol. 19 No. 02
Publication year1995



State v. Riker, Battered Women Under Duress: The Concept the Washington Supreme Court Could Not Grasp

Ann-Marie Montgomery(fn*)


Domestic violence does not discriminate. It strikes with equal force to all victims. There is no typical battered woman. She is a neighbor, a friend, a co-worker, a boss, a sister, a child, a mother. With statistics evidencing that a woman is beaten every eighteen seconds,(fn1) it is difficult for one to ignore this issue.

Fortunately, society is becoming increasingly aware of the domestic violence problem in America. Since 1979, courts have held that expert testimony regarding the existence of the battered woman syndrome (BWS) is admissible.(fn2) Through these judicial decisions and legislative action,(fn3) many battered women are now allowed to present evidence of the BWS to support a defense to criminal acts related to their batterers. Unfortunately, not all battered women defendants are allowed to introduce BWS testimony to support their defenses. Deborah Riker is one of the battered women to whom the Supreme Court of Washington chose to deny this opportunity.(fn4)

Although some people have the option of going to the police after receiving threats on their lives, this was not the case for Deborah Riker: Deborah is a battered woman.(fn5) Since age nine, Deborah suffered repeated torture and abuse at the hands of men who were in her life.(fn6) In 1987, Deborah met Rupert Burke, a man who abused both women and drugs.(fn7) When Burke threatened both Deborah and her sister, Deborah did what he told her to do: she sold him cocaine.(fn8)

As a result, Deborah was charged with delivery and possession of cocaine.(fn9) Deborah's case presented the classic defense of duress, but she was not allowed to introduce evidence to adequately support this defense.(fn10) Although Washington courts admit BWS testimony in cases where a battered woman's state of mind is at issue, in State v. Riker,(fn11) the Washington Supreme Court upheld the trial court's refusal to admit this evidence to support Deborah's defense of duress.(fn12)

This Note argues that prior Washington case law, current literature on the BWS, and proper application of evidence rules with regard to expert testimony mandate that courts admit BWS testimony where the defendant claims a defense of duress, regardless of the factual context in which the duress occurred. Because of the Riker court's result-oriented approach, the erroneous decision will adversely impact criminal defendants for years to come. Part I of this Note provides background on the admissibility requirements for novel scientific evidence and expert testimony in Washington. Part II discusses the history of the BWS, including the original research, the effects of the syndrome, and the scientific acceptance of this phenomenon. Part III more closely examines Washington's use of BWS testimony in cases where a battered woman's state of mind is at issue. Part IV discusses both the trial court and Washington Supreme Court decisions in State v. Riker. Part V argues that the majority's decision was erroneous because, in an effort to reach a particular result, the majority misapplied both the Frye rule(fn13) and Washington Evidence Rule 702 (ER 702).(fn14) Further, Part V argues that the majority ignored the similarities between self-defense and duress, a proper analysis of which would require admission of BWS testimony in cases of duress.

I. Scientific Evidence and Expert Testimony in Washington

Because trial judges lack scientific expertise, courts are reluctant to admit scientific evidence unless the theory or procedure used has been carefully scrutinized, thereby ensuring its validity.(fn15) Further, because the average person lacks the training and experience necessary to interpret scientific evidence, experts are needed to explain the foundation for such evidence to the jury.(fn16)

Washington courts engage in a two-step inquiry to determine the admissibility of expert testimony regarding novel scientific evidence.(fn17) First, the evidence must satisfy the Frye standard.(fn18) Under Frye, courts determine, as a matter of law, whether such evidence has "achieved general acceptance in the relevant scientific community."(fn19) Second, the proposed testimony must be properly admissible under ER 702.(fn20) Under ER 702, courts will admit expert testimony if the witness qualifies as an expert and if the testimony would be helpful to the trier of fact.(fn21) In determining whether expert testimony regarding scientific evidence is admissible, a trial court must analyze the Frye issue first.(fn22)

A. The Frye Standard

The standard applied by Washington courts for determining the admissibility of novel scientific evidence was originally set out in Frye v. United States.(fn23) In Frye, the court determined that novel scientific evidence "must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs."(fn24) The Frye standard is not a separate rule of evidence. Rather, it is a limitation on the admissibility of novel scientific evidence under ER 702.(fn25)

Under the Frye standard, expert testimony regarding novel scientific evidence must satisfy a two-part test: First, the expert's underlying theory must be "generally accepted in the scientific community."(fn26) Second, there must exist "techniques, experiments, or studies utilizing that theory which are capable of producing reliable results and are generally accepted in the scientific community."(fn27) Once a jurisdiction has accepted a scientific theory under Frye, the theory is no longer novel and need not undergo a Frye analysis again.(fn28)

B. Evidence Rule 702

After a court determines that novel scientific evidence satisfies the Frye standard, the court must analyze the proposed testimony under ER 702.(fn29) Although Frye applies only to the admissibility of novel scientific evidence, ER 702 is the rule of evidence by which all expert testimony is admitted. ER 702 provides:If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.(fn30) Thus, in Washington, expert testimony is admissible under ER 702 when (1) "[t]he witness qualifies as an expert," and (2) "the testimony is helpful to the trier of fact."(fn31) While both elements of ER 702 must be satisfied, admissibility will typically turn on prong two- whether the testimony will be helpful to the trier of fact.(fn32) Expert testimony is helpful to the trier of fact if it is relevant.(fn33)

Relevant testimony is governed by Evidence Rule 401 (ER 401)(fn34) and Evidence Rule 403 (ER 403).(fn35) ER 401 provides a liberal definition of relevance, requiring only the following: (1) the testimony must have the "tendency to prove or disprove a fact," and (2) the testimony "must be of some consequence in the context of the other facts and the applicable substantive law."(fn36) Traditionally, these requirements are referred to as probative value(fn37) and materiality.(fn38)

ER 403 is a limitation on ER 401.(fn39) Under ER 403, even relevant evidence may be excluded if it is unfairly prejudicial, confusing, or a waste of time.(fn40) Applying a balancing process, courts will exclude evidence if its negative character outweighs its general relevance.(fn41) However, a judge may not exclude evidence merely because she disbelieves it.(fn42) This question is a matter of credibility and is strictly for the jury to decide.(fn43)

Relevance under both ER 401 and ER 403, then, is intricately related to the jury's role in the case. Washington courts have held that testimony is relevant if it assists the jury to understand a phenomenon that is outside the competence of the average lay person.(fn44) The BWS is an example of just such a phenomenon.

II. The Battered Woman Syndrome

The BWS is a psychological term of art that explains "the measurable psychological changes that occur after exposure to repeated abuse."(fn45) The BWS is not an illness, "it is a collection of thoughts, feelings, and actions that logically follow a frightening experience that one expects could be repeated."(fn46) Dr. Lenore E. Walker is largely responsible for the development of the BWS and is a nationally recognized expert in this area.(fn47) Dr. Walker defines a battered woman as "one who is repeatedly subjected to any forceful physical or psychological behavior by a man in order to coerce her to do something he wants her to do without any concern for her rights."(fn48) There is no typical battered woman because the syndrome affects women from all socio-economic groups and religions.(fn49)

A. The Study

Dr. Walker conducted one of the first scientific research projects studying the psychological effects of repeated abuse on battered women.(fn50) The results of Dr. Walker's study are based on tests conducted on 435 battered women.(fn51) According to Dr. Walker, a woman is diagnosed as a battered woman when she has experienced at least two cycles of violence with the same intimate partner.(fn52) In reaching this diagnosis, it is clinically...

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