Battered Woman Syndrome


The scientific evidence supporting testimony about battering and its effects continues to develop, as has the approach to expert testimony that rests upon it. Originally coined by Lenore Walker, battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a term used in the legal system. However, it is neither a legal defense nor a psychiatric diagnosis. Although the term BWS brought considerable attention to the plight of battered women, a number of factors limit its utility. Testimony about battering and its effects was introduced in the 1970s in a landmark case involving a defendant who was eventually acquitted of killing her husband. Since that time, there has been an explosion of empirically based knowledge and information about the nature of domestic violence and its effects on both adult victims and their children who witness it.

Legal definitions of BWS vary across jurisdiction. When BWS is defined as a subcategory of posttrau-matic stress disorder (PTSD), it fails to explain many facets of battered women’s strategic and psychological responses to violence. This leaves the judge and jury with less than adequate information on which to base their decisions. Although a substantial body of research indicates that PTSD is common following domestic violence victimization, many abused women exposed to great danger do not exhibit these symptoms.

An explanation for various questions presented to an expert witness relies on evidence concerning the ecological context of the defendant’s life, including the abuser’s pattern of violence over time, prior strategies used to deal with the violence, the effectiveness of those strategies including others’ responses, and available resources. The victim’s mental (and physical) state is important, but notably, PTSD is only one aspect of it.

Regina Schuller and her colleagues have shown that mock jurors evaluated the defendant as more psychologically unstable when an expert relied upon BWS rather than social framework testimony, thus enforcing a stereotype of the battered woman that diverges considerably from the perspective of a battered woman as one whose actions are a logical culmination of the circumstances to which she has been exposed. In sum, BWS is not adequate as a framework for understanding a battered victim’s actions. Alternatively, social framework analysis focused on the circumstances of battering and its effects roots expert testimony in the continually developing scientific evidence in the field.

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