Battered Woman Syndrome: The Legal Quagmire
Cyntoia Brown was drugged, abused and raped.
Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life imprisonment and has been in prison for over 13 years.
Cyntoia Brown fatally shot a man when she was 16 years old.
You’ve probably heard of Cyntoia Brown, her case went viral in November 2017. It attracted the attention and support of Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, LeBron James and Cara Delevigne, among a host of other celebrities.
Ms. Brown shot her 43-year-old sexual predator, who bought her from a pimp named Kutthroat, after she had spent a month under abduction, having been drugged and raped by various men throughout that period. When she finally found the courage to escape, she ended up having to shoot her abuser in an act of self-defence. The prosecution maintains that it was instead an act of theft, as Ms. Brown took the man’s wallet after she shot him.
While the matter of Ms. Brown, being argued over self-defence and theft, may seem hard to grasp, at its centre lies a less widely known concept of legal psychology – The Battered Woman Syndrome.
BWS finds place in cases of domestic violence, where the key to ending the abuse is for the victim to escape the relationship. The catch? Escaping an abusive relationship is easier said than done. The dynamics of the relationship are such that questions like, “why don’t they just leave?”, have no simple answers. Sometimes, the victim is scared into submission by raw physical intimidation, psychological fear of being caught and torture, at others, there is no one to escape to, or a life beyond the abuse. In most cases, victims who attempt escaping end up getting caught and losing their lives.
An abusive relationship starts out like any other, but soon, the abuser finds ways to bring anxiety and stress into the relationship. The inflexion point is reached when this explodes into a regular cycle of emotional, sexual, physical or economical abuse on the victim, followed by apologies and promises to make amends. As the abuser tries to fix the wrongdoings, for the first time, the relationship enters what is known as the “honeymoon stage”, the mistaken sense of comfort puts the victim at ease, until the cycle returns to stage 1, only that the honeymoon stage becomes shorter successively. This abusive cycle is illustrated in the diagram below.
As the abusive cycle continues, the victim starts to feel helpless. In many cases, especially where the victim’s family is not supportive enough, she begins to blame herself for the abuse. Often times, the abuse may not physically harm the victim, in many cases the abuser uses emotional manipulation by attempting to hurt himself. This sort of abuse is usually even more successful in causing self-doubt and inflicting blame on the victim. This begins a toxic process known as “gaslighting” – a targeted approach to make the victim doubt their own sanity and inflict self-blame. This state of mind of the victim, clinically known as “learned helplessness” or “psychological paralysis”, is the cause of the entrapment in the relationship. Thus, BWS is recognized as a mental disorder, a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is common in women who are victims of serious, long-term abuse of the kind described above.
From a legal standpoint, this raises an intriguing question – if the victim is in a psychological paralysis, does she have the cognitive ability to form mens rea (the intent of committing a known wrong)? Mens rea is an essential characteristic of criminology, if the victim say, Cyntoia Brown, without any apprehension or sudden provocation of an attack, harms their abuser in trying to escape, can it be called an act of self-defence? Note that while sudden provocation or apprehension of an attack is a valid ground for self-defence, Ms. Brown’s actions took place at a time when abuse was not actually being carried out. But, can it still be said that the victim had apprehension of the attack as a result of the years of abuse?
Look at it another way, a wife has been in a terrible, abusive relationship for ten years. In the past week, the relationship is in a honeymoon stage. One night, as the husband is asleep, she finds her husband’s gun, shoots him and escapes. On being questioned, she says she was too terrified of escaping while he slept because the last 3 times she tried in similar circumstances, she was caught and tortured for days. Would this be an act of self-defense?
Before we delve into that, there are two concepts of criminology that are essential to understand in determining any criminal case. Actus reus (or rea) which means ‘guilty act’ and, mens rea which means ‘guilty mind’, are imperative components for proving a crime, except in certain cases such as negligence with which we are not concerned at this point. For cases such as murder and homicide, actus rea and mens rea are the key to imputing guilt for a crime on an individual. It is for this reason that children under the age of seven, who are presumed to not know right and wrong, are absolved from criminal liability for any act under the Indian Penal Code (s.82), as they do not have mens rea. A similar provision also exists for insanity u/s 84 of IPC.
When it comes to exercising private defence to the extent of causing death, there are certain instances for the exception to being held liable are to be given – an assault which forms an apprehension of death or grievous hurt or intention of committing rape or gratifying unnatural lust or an intention kidnapping or of abducting, and so on (s.100 of IPC). There is no right of private defence in cases in which there is time to have recourse to the protection of the public authorities (s.99 of IPC); the right to private defence shall in no case extend to the inflicting of more harm than it is necessary to inflict for the purpose of defence. Equivalent provisions, with some modifications exist under almost every country’s criminal law for the above mentioned circumstances.
Thus, for Ms. Brown to escape punishment, her lawyers would have had to prove that BWS falls under the legal definition of insanity (which is based on precedents) or, that it could lead a reasonable person to apprehend an attack and therefore, her actions were legally permissible.
Most crimes committed by the victim against the abuser are premeditated. The victim plans out the intricacies of the escape to the best of their ability – consequences of getting caught while escaping might be far worse than the result of staying in the abusive relationship. The Supreme Court of India, referring to Mayne’s Criminal Law of India, has said that it must be investigated whether there was deliberation and preparation for the act, in cases where insanity is to be tested. An act of escape on part of the victim done in such a way falls into the ambit of having mens rea according to Mayne – since there was planning, as in our hypothetical case of the wife.
On the other hand, the Even in cases where the escape is done in a spur of the moment, without any preparation, and harm is caused to the abuser on part of the victim, it is difficult to take the defence of private defence. The act of escape in these cases is not done as a response to an apprehension of danger, rather the lack of it when the victim finds a gap in the abuser’s attention.
In the English case of R v Charlton [(2003) EWCA Crim 415], the victim and her daughter consistently received violent and sexual threats at the behest of the abuser. During their regular sexual activity when the abuser was cuffed, gagged and blindfolded, the victim killed him. It must be noted that there was no sudden provocation, apprehension of harm here; there certainly was preparation for the crime. Nevertheless, taking into account the threats of the abuser, the mental state of the victim and the concern for the safety for her daughter and herself, the Court mitigated her sentence from 5 years to 3.5 years. Among other jurisdictions, while Australia accepts evidence of abuse as part of defence, Canada has accepted set precedent for the use of battered women’s syndrome as complete defence since 1990. New Zealand goes further to recognise abuse of men at the hands of women and abuse in same-sex relationships as well.
When we delve into the dynamics of an abusive and violent relationships, the state of mind of the victim take center stage. In such a scenario, the necessity to accept battered women’s syndrome as a valid defence becomes apparent. However, our laws continue to grapple with the psychological considerations of recognizing BWS as part of the definition of legal insanity, or as a mental framework that helps mitigate the premeditation test for private defense. We cannot have it both ways, either the law will once and for all have to recognize BWS for the PTSD it is, and grant it the status of insanity, in which case punishments will certainly abate, or the flexibility granted by the argument for private defence will prevail. Given that India has historically struck with common law precedents, it looks like for the time being, BWS will retain the half-hearted recognition of the legal community and cases will be dealt on individual merits – with both remissions of punishments and complete exoneration being determined by individual courts.
Disclaimer: This is not a mental health article and any explanation of such issues provided should not be considered expert advice. Domestic violence can occur with both men and women being victims, however, this article has been written keeping in mind the majority of the cases where abusers tend to be men. Thus, the use of gender specific pronouns in this article should not be read to testify that domestic violence and abuse is gender specific with only women being victims at all times.
Comments and suggestions are welcome.