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Court reverses conviction, cites flawed battered-spouse instruction

Delving into the issue of deadly domestic violence, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled Friday that judges have the duty to decide whether to admit into evidence instances of past abuse that indicate defendants may have suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome when claiming they killed their significant other in self-defense.

Jurors can then consider that evidence of past abuse in deciding whether the killing was in self-defense without necessarily concluding the defendant suffered from the syndrome, the Court of Special Appeals held in its reported 3-0 decision.

The court issued its ruling in reversing – based on a flawed jury instruction — the voluntary-manslaughter conviction of a woman who claimed she fatally stabbed her boyfriend in self-defense after suffering repeated physical and psychological abuse.

The appellate court said the Wicomico County Circuit Court judge erroneously instructed the jurors it was their duty to determine if Latoya Elzey “suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome” before making the ultimate decision of whether she was protecting herself when she killed Migail Hunter.

“Whether the defendant has adequately raised the issue of Battered Spouse Syndrome is a question of law to be decided by the trial court (judge),” Judge Irma S. Raker wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

“Once a trial court determines that the defendant has adequately raised the issue, it has the discretion to admit for the jury’s consideration, the evidence of repeated abuse of the defendant by the victim and expert testimony on Battered Spouse Syndrome,” wrote Raker, a retired judge sitting by special assignment. “Hence, the jury could consider the evidence of self-defense without first making (and agreeing upon) a predicate finding.”

The judge’s mistake was “instructing the jury to make a predicate finding before the jury could consider the evidence of Battered Spouse Syndrome,” Raker wrote. “The court’s instruction was unclear and potentially misleading as to what, if any, effect past abuse may have had on appellant’s state of mind, even though the court had admitted appellant’s expert witness testimony on her past abuse and its effect on her state of mind.”

Battered Spouse Syndrome, a defense recognized under Maryland law, holds that people subjected to systematic physical and psychological abuse over a period of years from their significant others might actually believe they are always in grave danger and must take action.

Elzey testified she fought with Hunter in the living room of a friend’s house on May 22, 2017, telling him, “Don’t put your hands on me” and “I’m tired of you putting your f…ing hands on me.” She said that she grabbed a knife from the kitchen and that Hunter “lunged forward and stabbed himself in the chest.”

Elzey, who was indicted on charges ranging from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter, argued self-defense and said she acted reasonably in light of Hunter’s repeated physical and psychological abuse of her.

The judge admitted the evidence of past abuse into trial after concluding it pointed toward Battered Spouse Syndrome. However, he instructed the jury that it “must determine, based upon a consideration of all the evidence, whether the defendant was a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse by the victim, and if so whether she suffered from battered spouse syndrome.”

The jury subsequently convicted Elzey of voluntary manslaughter, prompting her appeal based on the improper jury instruction.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office said it was reviewing the Court of Special Appeals’ decision.

Elzey’s appellate attorney, James Kirkpatrick, did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the ruling. Kirkpatrick is with Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington.

Raker was joined in the opinion by Judges Kevin F. Arthur and Dan Friedman.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Latoya Bonte Elzey v. State of Maryland, No. 1131, September Term 2018.

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