Delving into the issue of domestic violence, Maryland’s top court Thursday grappled with whether a judge properly instructed a jury to determine first if a woman suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome before deciding if she killed her boyfriend in self-defense.
Defense attorney James Kirkpatrick told the Court of Appeals that the Wicomico County Circuit Court judge’s instruction was flawed because it reversed the standard that juries consider all admitted evidence before reaching an ultimate verdict.
In this case, the jury was discouraged from considering expert testimony regarding the abuse Latoya Elzey had endured from her boyfriend Migail Hunter unless the jurors found that she suffered from the abuse-related syndrome, said Kirkpatrick, of Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington
“You can’t really unbake the cake and examine the ingredients,” Kirkpatrick told the court in addressing the awkwardness of the judge’s instruction.
But Assistant Maryland Attorney General Carrie J. Williams countered that requiring the jury to make a “predicate” finding of battered spouse syndrome was consistent with other evidentiary demands placed on jurors. For example, jurors are instructed to first conclude that a defendant fled the crime scene or destroyed evidence as a condition of finding the defendant’s consciousness of guilt, Williams said.
“We are not asking the court to do anything it hasn’t already done,” Williams added.
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.
In Elzey’s case, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals agreed with Kirkpatrick in ruling that the trial judge’s pre-trial decision to admit testimony regarding Battered Spouse Syndrome should have relieved the jury of having to first conclude that Elzey suffered from it when she killed Hunter.
Thus, the judge erred in saying the jury must find that Elzey suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome before being free to weigh the admitted evidence of past abuse in deciding whether her violent act was justified, the lower court said in overturning Elzey’s voluntary manslaughter conviction.
Williams, in urging the high court to reinstate the conviction, said the judge properly instructed the jury to “consider all the evidence” in deciding first whether the Battered Spouse Syndrome defense applied and then to rely on all evidence at trial to determine Elzey’s state of mind when she killed Hunter.
Williams added the jury did rely on all the evidence, rejected the state’s contention that Elzey murdered Hunter and instead returned the voluntary manslaughter verdict.
But Judges Brynja M. Booth and Jonathan Biran appeared skeptical of Williams’ argument, saying that once a judge permits testimony to be admitted the jurors are free to give it as much weight as they choose in reaching their verdict without having to make an initial finding, such as whether the defendant was a battered spouse.
Kirkpatrick echoed the judges’ comments in saying the jury’s instruction that it make a predicate finding of Battered Spouse Syndrome detracted from the general command that jurors are free to consider all admitted evidence.
At trial, Elzey testified that 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, the judge 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.
The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, State of Maryland v. Latoya Bonte Elzey, No. 3, September Term 2020.