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Divided Md. court affirms battered wife’s murder conviction

Court of Special Appeals rejects self-defense claim

A divided Maryland appeals court has upheld the first-degree murder conviction and life sentence of a woman who hired a man to kill a husband she said physically, verbally and psychologically abused her for more than 25 years.

In its 2-1 decision, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals rejected Karla Louise Porter’s argument that the jury should have been allowed to consider her self-defense claims.

The court’s majority said the self-defense arguments were not available to Porter because she was not facing an imminent threat of harm when her husband, William Raymond Porter, was shot to death in 2010 at the Hess gas station they ran in Towson. In fact, Karla Porter had hired the contract killer, Walter Bishop, two weeks before the slaying, the court added in its reported decision Tuesday.

“In our view, the factual predicate at issue is whether, at the time Mr. Porter was killed, Ms. Porter honestly, albeit subjectively, believed that she was in imminent, that is to say, immediate danger of death or serious bodily harm,” Judge Christopher B. Kehoe wrote for the majority.

“There was certainly evidence from which the jury could have found that Ms. Porter had felt herself in imminent danger of death on occasions in the weeks and months before Mr. Porter’s death, but there was no evidence that she had such a belief on the morning of the murder,” Kehoe added. “Because there was no evidence that Ms. Porter was in fear of imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm at the time that Mr. Porter was shot, there was insufficient evidence to generate a jury instruction on self-defense.”

Kehoe, joined by Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff, also rejected Porter’s argument that the jury should have been instructed on “imperfect self-defense,” which permits victims of “battered-spouse syndrome,” codified under Maryland law, to say they had a valid, subjective belief based on repeated beatings that their life was in danger despite the absence of an imminent threat. A successful imperfect self-defense argument would not excuse the killing but reduce the crime from murder to manslaughter, the judges said in holding that the battered-spouse syndrome does not apply in Karla Porter’s case.

The majority also noted Porter solicited people to murder her husband nine months before the slaying; finalized the contract with Bishop two weeks before the shooting; spoke by phone with Bishop or an associate of his 50 times before the shooting and then met with him at a nearby McDonald’s moments before the killing to make sure he would go through with it.

“In our view, her active participation in an elaborate conspiracy to kill her husband, places her outside of the class of persons for whose protection the battered-spouse statute was enacted,” Kehoe wrote.

The Maryland attorney general’s office hailed the court’s ruling.

“We are pleased that the Court of Special Appeals affirmed Ms. Porter’s conviction for the murder-for-hire of her husband,” the office said in a statement. “We agree with the Court that the defense of battered-spouse syndrome was not intended to apply to a defendant who meticulously sought out and hired a third-party to murder her husband.”

Porter’s attorney, Baltimore solo practitioner Marta K. Kahn, did not return a telephone message seeking comment Thursday.

Violent relationship

Porter had testified at her murder trial that during their 28-year relationship, including 24 years of marriage, William Porter had beaten her with a belt; hit her with a rake, a board, his fists and a tool box; stabbed her in the abdomen with a drill; pushed her head into a grave marker; smeared dog excrement on her; and threatened to kill her on several occasions, including once while pointing a gun at her. He also repeatedly insulted her appearance and worth as a human being and forced her to drink water from the kitchen sink until she urinated on herself, Porter said in testifying why she had solicited Bishop to kill her husband.

A Baltimore County Circuit Court jury convicted her of first-degree murder in 2013 after having received what the state conceded was an incorrect instruction on imperfect self-defense. The Court of Special Appeals held that the quality of the instruction was irrelevant because the self-defense argument was unavailable to Porter as a matter of law.

But Judge Dan Friedman, in dissent, said Karla Porter should receive a new trial.

The jury should have been correctly instructed on self-defense and imperfect self-defense because Porter had presented evidence of a pattern of abuse as well as an expert witness to explain how a victim of battered-spouse syndrome can subjectively believe she was in imminent threat of harm, even when outside the presence of her tormentor, Friedman wrote.

In addition, Porter’s hiring of someone to do the killing for her does not necessarily weaken her self-defense argument but is a factor the jury may consider in deciding whether the threat was imminent, Friedman wrote.

“(I) infer from the testimony of the experts here that victims of the battered spouse syndrome, conditioned by their abusers to feel weak, unempowered, and impotent, might, as a direct result of their victimology, select to murder by contract killer rather than do it themselves,” Friedman wrote. “Thus, I would view murder for hire as a particularly attenuated subspecies of the non-confrontational category of battered-spouse cases. As with all of these non-confrontational type cases, including murders where the victim (and batterer) is sleeping or otherwise incapacitated, the question for the jury to decide is whether the attenuation was too far and the threat was no longer imminent.”

The Court of Special Appeals issued its decision in Karla Louise Porter v. State of Maryland, No. 1916, September Term 2013.

Bishop, who was paid $400 for the killing, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

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