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Battered spouses and violent acts of self-defense

A one-time battered Michigan housewife, whose marriage ended in a violent act of self-defense that came to redefine how the state of Michigan (and eventually the entire country) viewed acts of sudden violence by battered spouses, has recently died. She was 69.

In 1977, the woman set fire to the home she shared with her husband while he slept, killing him. The publicity from the trial moved battered spouses and domestic violence into the forefront of American minds — and made many lawmakers realize that existing laws were inadequate to provide a clear defense for someone in that situation.

It didn’t hurt that the trial was eventually turned into a book and then a 1987 movie, “The Burning Bed,” starring the iconic Farrah Fawcett. That allowed many lay people to get a glimpse into the way chronic domestic violence can cause a victim to react in ways that are atypical from what most people otherwise expect and gathered public support for changes in the laws.

Recognizing that existing legal defenses didn’t give his client many options, her attorney argued that decades of spousal abuse had left his client incapable of rising to her own defense in a way that was typically seen in self-defense cases.

In fact, he argued that she was actually temporarily insane at the time of the murder. All the spousal abuse she had endured had left her too afraid to leave her attacker as long as he was alive. She finally set fire to the house in the genuine, if not entirely rational, belief that it was her only chance to survive.

The argument worked. She was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

Her case and life are notable because they gave rise to an entirely new legal theory that is now used in cases where a battered spouse (male or female) suddenly violently attack his or her abusive mate while the abuser is somehow incapacitated.

Once called “battered women’s syndrome,” it’s now generally referred to a “battered spouse’s syndrome,” and it is considered a legitimate mental disorder that affects how a long-term victim of domestic violence may think, feel and act.

If you committed an act of violence against your long-time abuser, an attorney who understands the mechanics of battered spouse’s syndrome can help.

Source: FindLaw, “Battered Women's Syndrome,” accessed April 26, 2017

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