Self-Defense, Battered Wives, Reasonableness, and the Imminent Danger Doctrine

September 9, 2012

The commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” did not come with a list of exceptions. Nevertheless, few people today regard that commandment as absolute and our laws have legitimized the most common exception, killing in self-defense.

Even though most people generally agree that the law should permit a person to use deadly force in self-defense, lawmakers have struggled to come up with a bright line rule that establishes a clear boundary between when it is permissible to use deadly force in self-defense and when it is not. Put another way, when you believe someone is going to kill you, how long do you have to wait before you can lawfully use deadly force to defend yourself?

The answer to this question is as vexing to nations as it is to individuals.

Consider, for example, the decision of the United States Government to attack Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction against other nations. Assuming for the sake of argument that he had weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them against other nations, which was not true, would a preemptive strike in self-defense or defense of others have been a legitimate use of force?

Consider the same question on the personal level. If someone is coming to kill you, should you be able to use deadly force in preemptive self-defense before you are in any actual danger or should you have to wait until it might be too late to save yourself?

There is no easy answer to this question and no predicament better illustrates this dilemma than the plight of the battered wife or girlfriend.

Psychologists have developed a term to describe women who remain in abusive relationships. They call it Battered Wife Syndrome. Women who suffer from the syndrome feel typically feel isolated, trapped and powerless in an abusive relationship where the abuser alternates between being abusive and apologetic. Due to difficult financial circumstances, the women fear they cannot survive on their own. This fear is exacerbated if they have children. They will not leave them behind and decide to remain in the relationship because they fear they cannot provide for their children if they leave and take them with them. Instead of leaving, the women try to adapt by becoming more accepting of the abuse. Psychologists have a name for this condition. They call it “learned helplessness.” Meanwhile, over time the abuse escalates into ever more physical attacks and beatings. Eventually, many of these women are killed by their abusive husbands or boyfriends.

Sometimes, however, they reach a breaking point before it’s too late for them to save themselves. They decide to kill the abuser and it is not unusual to see cases where they kill him when he might least expect it. For example, shooting him to death while he sleeps.

This situation occurred in State of Washington v. Allery, 101 Wn.2d 591, 682 P.2d 312 (1984). The Court described the facts as follows:

The defendant married Wayne Allery in 1975. Shortly after the marriage, she began to experience what was to become a consistent pattern of physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She suffered periodic pistol whippings, assaults with knives, and numerous beatings from her husband’s fists throughout the marriage. In 1978, Mrs. Allery was hospitalized after her husband struck her on the head with a tire iron. During the last year of their marriage, the beatings increased in frequency and severity. Finally, on October 24, 1980, Mrs. Allery initiated divorce proceedings and served her husband with restraining orders.

The shooting occurred early in the morning of November 1, 1980. The defendant testified that she entered her house late at night not expecting to find her husband there because of the restraining orders. She bolted the door locked when she entered. As she moved through the house and into the kitchen, a light came on by the couch. Mr. Allery was lying there and said to her, “I guess I’m just going to have to kill you sonofabitch. Did you hear me that time?” Report of Proceedings, at 611.

The defendant went into the bedroom and tried unsuccessfully to open the window to escape. She heard a metallic noise from the kitchen and thought Mr. Allery was getting a knife. While in the bedroom, the defendant loaded one shell into a shotgun. She moved from the bedroom to the kitchen area and fired the shot that killed her husband while he remained lying on the couch.

The Washington State Supreme Court reversed her first degree murder conviction on the ground that the trial court erred in refusing to allow the defense to present expert testimony regarding battered wife syndrome to explain to the jury why a battered wife would reasonably believe herself to be in imminent danger of being killed or suffering grievous bodily harm even though her husband was sleeping at the time she killed him.

There is a difference between the meaning of the words “immediate” and “imminent.” Mrs. Allery may not have been in immediate danger while her husband was sleeping on the couch. Given her past experiences with her husband, however, she had good reason to believe she was in imminent danger that would turn into immediate danger as soon as he woke up.

I hope y’all find this discussion helpful in understanding the imminent danger doctrine relative to the efforts of lawmakers and judges to decide where to draw the line that separates murder from justifiable homicide in self-defense.

For your information, Washington State’s self-defense statute is substantially similar to the Florida statute in that both have no duty to retreat and both require a jury to decide whether the defendant reasonably believed he was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering serious injury when he used deadly force.

They differ, however, in that the Washington statute has an additional subjective component that requires the jury to put itself in the defendant’s position and perceiving what she perceived and knowing what she knew decide whether her use of deadly force was reasonable. This additional requirement is significant in battered wife syndrome cases because it requires a jury to apply an individually tailored standard of reasonableness that can produce different results in different cases.

For more information on the battered wife syndrome, check out this law review article.

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