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Thriller Thursday: Battered Woman Syndrome as Defense for Murder

Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!

A controversial concept, Battered Woman Syndrome is a model that was developed by Dr. Lenore E. Walker to describe the mindset and emotional state of a battered woman. A battered woman is a woman who has experienced at least two complete battering cycles as described in dating and domestic violence. —RAINN

I can’t fathom physical or sexual abuse, period, let alone at the hands of a spouse. I can only imagine the emotional trauma a victim goes through: the fear, low self-worth, the self-hatred, the hopelessness. It’s something no human being should ever endure.

According to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, there are four general characteristics of Battered Women’s Syndrome.

1) The woman believes the violence was/is her fault.
2) The woman has an inability to place responsibility for the violence elsewhere.
3) The woman fears for her life and/or her children’s.
4) The woman has an irrational belief the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.

But is Battered Woman Syndrome a justifiable murder defense?

In 2011, Barbara Sheehan went on trial for shooting her police officer husband, Raymond, 11 times. Barbara said she endured twenty years of verbal and physical abuse until the day in 2008 when she ended her husband’s life.

Barbara stated that on the morning she killed her husband, the two fought over whether or not Barbara would go to Florida with Raymond. The year before on vacation, Raymond had beat her face against the hotel wall until her head split open. Barbara refused to to Florida with Raymond, and he put a gun to her head.

She fled to a friend’s, and when she returned home, she found Raymond in a rage in the bathroom. She grabbed one of the guns he kept at home in the hope that he wouldn’t shoot her if she had the gun.

“He said he was going to kill me. So I shot the gun I had in my hand. He had the big gun, I had the little gun. I don’t know how many times I shot it. I couldn’t aim it. I just shot. I never shot a gun before. I didn’t intend to kill him. I just wanted him to stop and not kill me.” — Barbara Sheehan

Sheehan stated she never reported the abuse because her husband convinced her none of the police officers would believe a cop’s wife. Her daughter testified in her defense, stating her father constantly threatened her mother’s life and abused her.

Prosecutors called Sheehan’s abuse “alleged” and painted Sheehan as a coldblooded murderer.

The jury disagreed. Barbara was acquitted on October 7, 2011.

While Barbara is one of a number of recent acquittals due to Battered Woman’s Syndrome, Judy Norman’s story ends quite differently.

In North Carolina in 1988, she shot and killed her husband, John, while he was sleeping. An autopsy revealed three gunshot wounds to the head and a .12 alcohol level in John’s system.

Judy told police her husband had been beating her all day and made her lie on the floor while he slept on the bed. As he slept, she went to her mother’s house, took a pistol from her mother’s purse, and went back home. She pointed the pistol at John’s head; it jammed, she fixed it, and fired. Judy told officers she’d taken all she was going to take from John, so she shot him.

Married for twenty-five years, Judy said her husband’s abuse began about five years into their married and was caused by his heavy drinking. She described assaults including slapping, punching, kicking, and striking her with various objects. Judy said her husband put his cigarrettes out on her, threw hot coffee at her, and broke glass against her face. She had no evidence of medical treatment, but she did have several scars. She also said her husband didn’t work and forced her into prostitution, that he often called her a dog and whore and sometimes forced her to eat dog food out of the pet’s bowls.

Judy Norman was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years. Her case was appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, accepting Battered Wife’s Syndrome and stating the jury could have found her actions justified as an act of perfect self-defense. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that because imminent peril did not exist at the time of the murder, her previous abuse, however vile and factual it was, didn’t represent a valid self-defense claim. The court said she had ample time and opportunities to resort to other means.

Judy had gone to the police and various social workers many times. Those “other means” all failed her.

So Judy, despite abuse that was every bit as horrifying as Barbara’s, served six years essentially because of WHEN she shot her husband. Is this right? I don’t have the answer. Yes, to take a life is wrong, but when a woman is battered, emotionally and physically, when she feels she has nowhere else to turn, is it possible killing her abuser is legally justified?


Battered Woman Syndrome is a form of PTSD, and those who suffer may not have the ability to face their accuser or seek help as most of us would. So they turn to the most basic of self-defense – killing the person who’s hurting them. I’ve no doubt both Barbara and Judy felt their only chance at survival was to kill their tormentor, and isn’t survival the most basic of human needs?

What do you think about Barbara and Judy? Were they legally justified in their self-defense? For all its controversy, is Battered Woman Syndrome a legitimate defense?

Source, Source 

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30 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: Battered Woman Syndrome as Defense for Murder”

  1. It is absolutely essential to recognize domestic violence and to understand these homicides as acts of self-defense. However, Walker’s poor methodology has done a terrible disservice to the DV community by creating a shaky foundation of poor research that can be torn apart by prosecutors.

    • Very interesting comment. I confess, I didn’t have time to read Walker’s book but rather researched the cases and groups such as RAINN. In my mind, it makes absolute sense that a battered woman could justify these crimes, but I do understand the legal issue of making it hold up in court. Thank you for your comment.

  2. beverlydiehl

    Haven’t read Walker’s book, so I can’t address that aspect. I have experienced domestic violence, however – as a child, as a witness to it, and in my last relationship. Though it was (primarily) more verbal and emotional abuse, my ex did get physical with me twice, and threatened to shoot me on more than one occasion. (And yes, he did have guns, but at least he wasn’t brandishing them at the time.) It’s the kind of thing that, until it happens to YOU, you really can’t understand why a woman would get into a situation like that, or, once in, wouldn’t LEAVE, but abusers don’t start out as monsters. There is a very gradual escalation of bad behaviors in the abuser, and an erosion of self-esteem and a sense of reality for the victim.

    I absolutely think battered women’s syndrome can result in a self-defense killing (and I think men, also, can be abused to the point of going non-rational). I don’t think Judy Norman was treated fairly – when abuse has driven a person over the edge, it’s a bit much to expect the victim to behave rationally and logically. Is there wiggle room for somebody to abuse the defense? Sure. I think, however, that as more people talk about their own experiences, we as a society will better understand the dynamics of such a relationship, and do more to help victims escape, (To that end, when you upgrade your cellphone and have old ones around, you can donate them to help battle domestic violence.)

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Beverly. It’s very easy for someone like me to wonder why a battered woman (or man) didn’t go the authorities, but I do realize there’s no way to understand the situation until you’ve lived it. I can’t imagine the mental and emotional toll abuse takes on a person.

      I agree about Judy Norman. There was a definite pattern of abuse, and after all she’d been through, how COULD she think rationally? I can completely understand her thinking “what else can I do?” It’s survival instinct.

      And you make a wonderful point – the more we do as a society to help victims, the better we will all understand the psychology for it. Thanks for the link, and for stopping by.

  3. Thankfully I’ve never lived it but I have helped those who have. Each situation is different and just like suspected child abuse, people need to support the victims of suspected domestic abuse. Most communities now have shelters for battered women. (There need to be ones for men, too.) Just ten years ago, that wasn’t the case. I can see where someone would reach the breaking point and feel taking matters into their own hands was the only way out. Whether that’s a legal defense…I’m undecided.

    Ref: the cell phones
    Any shelter will take that donation because even a phone not connected to a service can dial 911.

    • Kudos to you for being involved in such an important endeavor, Raelyn. You’re right, there do need to be shelters for battered men. I’m sure that’s a bigger problem than society realizes. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in ten years, although we still have a long way to go.

      Thanks so much!

  4. I would not want to be on the juries for these women. What a tough decision. One seemed in self defense as it was in the act of the moment yet the other planned it – and that’s why she served? Pre-meditated. I cannot even understand being such a victim so its hard to get into the mindset of these women but I can see how years of abuse would cause a person to do such a thing, if they could not walk away. Just as a child cannot get away from abuse from a parent-these women were probably held by the same chains. I vividly remember Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed and how controversial that story was for its time.

    • Me, either. You have to go by the way the law is written, down to the letter, and it would be a really hard decision to live with, either way. I’m not sure I could have separated myself from the indignation these women suffered to be an unbiased jury member.

      Great comment, Donna. Thanks!

  5. Down here in Texas, I have heard it said that some people should be acquitted for murder on the defense of “he needed killin’.” It’s hard to argue with that for some “victims” who are actually predators themselves.

    I tend to agree with the sentences given for these women. Yes, it stinks for Judy. But for society as a whole, it seems that we need to uphold the concept that if there is ANY other option at the moment, you take it. I’m not saying these women are thinking clearly or can think clearly, but that is not a defense for murder. Self-defense and imminent peril are.

    Even as I write that, however, I know it isn’t simple and my heart hurts for these women and the children from these families. The ultimate answer is to stop the abusers before it ever comes to this. Thanks for another thought-provoking (and heart-wrenching) post, Stacy.

    • I’ve heard that saying before, too, Julie. And I agree. Some people ARE just predators and don’t deserve to be around. But is that our call to make.

      You make an interesting. The key for me is looking at it ONLY as a legal issue and not emotionally, and that IS true. She wasn’t in imminent peril. But I wonder if she thought she had anywhere else to go when she’d tried police and social workers? I just don’t know.

      It is an awful thing, and I hope today’s post helps bring a tiny bit more awareness to the subject. Thanks so much for your comment.

  6. My heart goes out to these women who suffer abuse at the hands of their spouses. It is hard for me to understand how a couple ends up like this. Early in a relationship there should be hints of this tendency. Does the woman not have enough self esteem to think she is worth more than how he treats her? Does she not have friends/family who can see this abuse? Is there noone she can trust to tell about her situation and ask them for help? We all need to raise our daughters to realize they are special and deserve respect and love. I do not believe in murder, but in a case of saving one’s self, it may legally be justified. It is too bad that someone did not step in and prevent the relationship spiraling into such a deadly result.

    • You’d think there would be, but for many (from my understanding) it’s a slow build up, and by the time the abuse starts, the woman is already emotionally beaten down. So much of it is psychological, and there are people who, for whatever reason, are less able to cope. That sounds terrible, but some people are more susceptible to the mental abuse, and I think they’re preyed on by their abusers. Absolutely true on how we need to raise our daughters. That’s just vital. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

  7. This is so interesting. Of course we’re not in their heads and don’t know their exact mental state when they killed, but I would guess they saw it as their only option and a viable one at that. Is it something we should condone? I don’t know. I want to say yes because those men are monsters and I want to say no because it’s taking another’s life. I know the system fails so many of these women and for every one that seeks help, there are many more who are too terrified to speak up. It breaks my heart. I had someone in my life who hit me. Once. I didn’t give him a second time. I also have someone in my life right now who is in a very abusive relationship and no matter how hard we try to get her out she always goes back. Kills me. Absolute kills me to feel impotent. I know one day I’ll get ‘the’ phone call and I dread that day.

    • I agree, Tameri. I can’t fathom it, but the idea of seeing it as their only viable option makes sense to me. To go through something like that would just be horrifying, but like you, I’m of two minds about it. Taking another’s life is wrong, period. And yet as you said, those woman were failed, repeatedly. It’s just awful. Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m so glad you didn’t give him a second chance. Thankfully you were able to get out, and my heart goes out to your friend. That must be so heartbreaking for you. Will keep you and your friend in my thoughts. Thanks again.

  8. Oh, this is a tough one! I agree completely with the acquittal for Barbara. I have no doubts about that one. In Judy’s case, it was obviously pre-meditated, but yet she was only convicted with manslaughter. So part of me wants to say she’s lucky that she only got six years. At least the part of me that wants to believe in the legal system. But the emotional part of me wants to say, “Good for you, he deserved it!” So that’s a really hard call for me.

    • Yes, it is. I see what you’re saying about Judy – that’s very true. It’s hard for me to separate the emotional side that says he deserved it from the legal issues. It’s a jury I would not want to be on.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  9. This was an awesome post. I enjoyed reading the comments almost as much as I enjoyed reading the post. I never thought of battered woman syndrome being a form of PTSD, but I can see how that is true.

    As you told the Judy Norman story, I knew she was going to jail. As someone else said, she is lucky she only got manslaughter and served six years. I don’t think she deserved more. I am not saying that at all. But that’s just the way our law works. Sometimes classifications like “pre-meditated” work in the favor of the victim, but sometimes they don’t.

    Last year, I got interested in a reality show on the Oprah channel. It was about women who were in prison. The show was called Breaking Down the Bars. In it was a woman who was serving time for killing her abusive husband. She was about to get out of prison, and had to face his family who still couldn’t believe their son had been a spouse abuser. Her emotions and how she was facing what she had done (it was pre-meditated too) were very interesting and heart-wrenching.

    Anyway, great post!

    • Thanks, Catie. I had trouble deciding where to go with it because there are so many stories out there, and they’re all different. Ultimately, these two stood out to me. I never thought of it as being PTSD either, but it certainly makes sense.

      Yes, I knew Judy would go to jail as soon as I read she shot him in his sleep, and I agree. She didn’t deserve more, but as far as how the law’s written, she probably is very lucky. I couldn’t find any follow up info on her, and I can only hope she live(or is living) a happier life.

      I’ve seen the adverts for Breaking Down Bars. It did look interesting. Now I wish I would have watched, lol.


  10. What a great post, Stacy! As another commenter said, I wouldn’t want to be on one of these juries. I can definitely see how Barbara’s case was more arguably self-defense since her husband was actively threatening her at the time of the murder. But I can also relate to Judy feeling her actions were her only hope of escape if other recourses had failed her. I also think a jury might be more inclined, right or wrong, to understand that desperation in the wife of a police officer. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to know that your abuser was closely affiliated with the people you would be expected to go to for help.

    • Thanks, Pam. It was a tough one to do because it’s such a sensitive, important subject. I wouldn’t want to be on one of those juries, either. I understand both women’s plights, and it sucks the law worked against Judy. Thanks so much for your comment!

  11. I can’t imagine what it would be like either. I remember the movie “Delores Claiborne,” and how it pulled you inside her abused life. By the end of the movie, it all made sense!
    Great review!

  12. What is not discussed often enough is how the agencies that are supposed to protect these women could not do so. I agree with you. Where do they turn when all else has failed them? When it becomes a matter of their survival, it’s already too late.

    • Absolutely, Cayman. These women are failed constantly. I know people are working hard to pass new laws, but when the abusers are in positions of authority, it’s especially hard to get help. Thanks for stopping by.

  13. lynnkelleyauthor

    This is an excellent post, Stacy. In Judy’s case, shooting someone while they’re asleep is a bit harder to defend than someone who’s life is in danger at the moment. So I’m not surprised at the outcome, but I believe Battered Woman Syndrome is a form of PTSD, for sure. I’ve known too many women (many very intelligent, beautiful) who have been battered women. It’s a horrible cycle, and the woman wants to believe everything her abuser tells her after the beatings, promising it will never happen again, and blah, blah, blah.

    I also learned that it takes an abused woman 7 to 10 attempts at leaving her abuser before she’s finally successful, and that’s only a percentage of them who actually do finally leave the abuser for good. Some never attempt to leave, but for those that do, it seems that once she leaves him, all the horrible memories fall by the way side and she remembers the good times and misses him, doesn’t feel whole without him. If he contacts her during this period, she’s extremely vulnerable to letting him talk her into going back. The abusers use every trick in the book to get her back, and if the woman doesn’t have a good support system, she’s at risk of returning to him. It’s very heart wrenching what these women go through, and I agree with you that no one should ever be subjected to such treatment.

    The whole time I was reading your post, I kept thinking of Lorena Bobbitt…

    • Thank you. It was a really tough one to write but I thought it was important. I agree on Judy’s case. She did make the decision, but the punishment should have considered the PTSD. And you’re right – that’s exactly what Battered Women Syndrome is. It’s heartbreaking that it’s still so rampant in this day and age.

      Wow, 7 to 10 attempts? That’s awful. But I can understand, in a way. The mind is a fragile, complicated thing, and abuse makes us so vulnerable. As you said, it’s all about manipulation and without a good support system, they don’t have much of a chance.

      Thanks so much for the response.

  14. There were two recent cases in my area whereby battered women did gather the courage to separate themselves from their abusers. The women took legal steps; they did everything right. They filed restraining orders, left the state , changed their names, etc. The husbands tracked them down, killed the women AND their children. How far can we run? How deep can we hide? How long can we protect our children from this type of masculine rage?

    • That is just unbelievable. Killed their children too? I can’t even imagine the level of obsession for those men to track the women across states. And I don’t know, but it’s very scary. It’s hard to imagine things getting any better when people are capable of this.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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