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Divided Md. high court overturns battered wife’s murder conviction

Judges' 4-3 vote was along gender lines

Divided Md. high court overturns battered wife’s murder conviction

Judges' 4-3 vote was along gender lines

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A sharply divided Maryland high court on Monday split along gender lines in overturning 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 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals said Karla Louise Porter should have the chance to argue on retrial that she hired the hit man in “imperfect self-defense” because she “actually believed” she was in imminent danger from her husband. If successful, the argument would not exonerate Porter in the 2010 death of William Porter at the Hess gas station the couple ran in Towson but would change her offense from murder to manslaughter, the high court said.

The court’s four female judges concluded that Porter has a potential imperfect self-defense argument based on battered spouse syndrome, a mental condition akin to post-traumatic stress disorder that places its victims in perpetual fear of assault. Maryland law acknowledges battered spouse syndrome as a criminal defense in domestic violence cases.

But the court’s three male judges dissented, assailing the majority for expanding self-defense doctrine “beyond the limits of immediacy and necessity.”

Judge Sally D. Adkins, in the majority opinion, stated that “evidence admitted under the battered spouse syndrome statute can be essential to a defendant’s claim of imperfect self-defense when she has committed non-confrontational homicide,” such as hiring a hit man.

“Expert testimony regarding the cycle of violence in an abusive relationship can explain to the jury how a woman might actually fear imminent danger during a break between violent episodes,” Adkins wrote. “Although our holding admittedly takes a step further than other courts have traveled, we decline to hold that a woman suffering from battered spouse syndrome must experience abuse within minutes or hours of her defensive action to be entitled to an instruction on imperfect self-defense. Doing so would ignore the reality of intimate partner violence.”

Abusive 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 Walter Bishop to kill her husband.

Evidence at trial showed that 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.

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 upheld the conviction last year, holding that the quality of the instruction was irrelevant because the self-defense argument was unavailable to Porter as a matter of law.

The Court of Appeals disagreed in sending the case back for a new trial.

Porter “has certainly presented ‘some evidence’ that she actually believed that she was in imminent danger at the time Walter Bishop killed her husband,” Adkins wrote. “It is up to the jury to decide whether to believe her.”

Adkins was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Shirley M. Watts and Michele D. Hotten.

Not a ‘substitute’

In dissent, Judge Clayton Greene Jr. said the self-defense argument is unavailable to Porter due to the time between the planning and execution of her husband’s slaying.

“Even if a battered spouse has a subjective belief that death or serious bodily harm at the hands of her abuser is inevitable, a murder planned weeks or months in advance can at most be considered a response to a generalized threat or expected future threat, but not a response to an imminent or immediate threat,” Greene wrote. “In other words, even if the battered spouse syndrome can show that the spouse has a generalized fear, the syndrome cannot substitute for the requirement of an imminent or immediate threat for imperfect self-defense.”

Judges Robert N. McDonald and Joseph M. Getty joined Greene’s dissent.

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

The Court of Appeals issued its decision in Karla Louise Porter v. State of Maryland, No. 88, September Term 2016.

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