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Md. high court breaks from other states in battered-spouse ruling

Maryland’s top court knew it was going where no state supreme court had gone before in ruling that a battered spouse who hires a hit man to kill her husband can claim imperfect self-defense, which, if successful, could turn what would be a murder conviction into a case of manslaughter.

In its 4-3 decision Monday, the Court of Appeals noted that courts in Colorado, Missouri and Tennessee have expressly rejected self-defense arguments in cases where an abused wife had hired someone to kill her tormentor, ruling that the woman was not in immediate or imminent fear for her safety while retaining a contract killer.

But the Court of Appeals, in its 4-3 decision, also cited cases from New Mexico and Washington state in which abused spouses were permitted to argue self-defense when they themselves had killed their husbands while they were lying in bed or on a couch. The Maryland court referred to these slayings as “non-confrontational” because the women were not under actual attack when they acted – as was also the case when Karla Louise Porter hired Walter Bishop to kill her husband, William Porter, at the Hess gas station the Porters ran in Towson.

Judge Sally D. Adkins, writing for the majority, said Karla Porter deserves a new trial because “we see no principled reason to distinguish contract killings from other forms of non-confrontational defensive action.”

Lisae C. Jordan, of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, praised the Court of Appeals’ departure from other court rulings and its recognition of “the reality that victims of domestic violence face.” She also voiced hope that other state courts follow suit.

“The Court of Appeals’ decision is part of a larger trend of recognizing intimate-partner violence and the reality that survivors live in,” said Jordan, MCASA’s executive director. “Ultimately, judges are not computers; they are not bound to follow other states. We should expect judges to understand the life experience of human beings, including the survivors of intimate-partner violence.”

Dorothy J. Lennig, legal clinic director at House of Ruth Maryland, said the decision shows that “this court really seems to understand the dynamics of domestic violence. They really truly understand what happens to a woman when she’s impacted by domestic violence.”

‘Undermining’ syndrome

Battered spouse syndrome, a defense recognized under Maryland law, holds that a person subjected to systematic physical and psychological abuse over a period years might actually believe that they are always in grave danger and must take action, the high court said.

“A woman suffering from the syndrome has endured more than one round of the cycle of violence – it is unsurprising that she may take steps to defense herself in preparation for the next bout of abuse,” Adkins wrote. “Denying imperfect self-defense to women who kill their batterers in non-confrontational settings – or when they have had time to plan – undermines the battered spouse syndrome statute, which explicitly permits testimony regarding the abuse despite evidence that the woman was the first aggressor.”

But the dissenting judges said the majority should have followed Colorado, Missouri and Tennessee’s lead in holding that a claim of self-defense dissolves in the time it takes to hire a killer.

“During this advance planning period, it is at least possible that a defendant subjectively – although in most if not all of the cases plainly unreasonably – believed that killing her abuser was a necessary response to a perceived risk of death or serious bodily harm,” Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote. “But, as the planning period stretches into days, weeks, or even months, it would be strange that any defendant who was still in full possession of her faculties could possibly believe, even subjectively, that all her advance planning was to protect herself from an imminent or immediate threat.”

However, Adkins, citing U.S. Justice Department statistics, stated that the dissent’s position “perpetuates a dangerous myth about intimate-partner violence.”

The dissent “takes the position that a woman who plans defensive action can never fear imminent harm,” Adkins wrote. “It suggests that a woman living in such constant fear would pursue other avenues of escape, such as calling the police. But only about half of nonfatal instances of intimate partner violence are reported to police, in part because women fear reprisal or believe the police will be unable to help them.”

Years of abuse

Karla Louise 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 had 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. The court’s female members – Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Shirley M. Watts and Michele D. Hotten – joined Adkins’ opinion. The court’s male members – 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 high court rendered its decision in Karla Louise Porter v. State of Maryland, No. 88, September Term 2016.

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