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Md. high court faults jury instruction in ‘battered spouse’ case

Judge Jonathan Biron

Judge Jonathan Biran

Delving into the issue of domestic violence, Maryland’s top court has ruled that abuse in prior relationships can be evidence of Battered Spouse Syndrome without its victims having to first show they were repeatedly abused by the significant other they killed and for which they stand trial.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in saying a judge had improperly instructed jurors that they must first conclude Migail Hunter repeatedly abused Latoya Elzey before considering whether Elzey was a battered partner who killed Hunter in self-defense.

Instead, the jury should have been allowed to find Elzey was battered based on all the evidence it heard – including details of her abusive past relationships – without having to first find Hunter repeatedly abused her, the high court said in setting aside Elzey’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter and ordering a new trial.

“It appears that the trial court required the jury to make a predicate finding that Hunter repeatedly abused Elzey because it was persuaded by the prosecutor’s argument that Elzey “is not allowed to murder her current boyfriend because four boyfriends ago beat her up,” Judge Jonathan Biran wrote for the high court.

“But this position is inconsistent with the General Assembly’s intent … to permit expert testimony that explains the complexity of the syndrome, in which past trauma may impact a person’s response to current trauma, thereby assisting jurors in their assessment of a seemingly counter-intuitive set of facts,” Biran 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.

At trial, Elzey told the Wicomico County Circuit Court jury that her prior relationships included a boyfriend who punched her in the face on a weekly basis and another who broke her jaw. The judge then erroneously told the jurors that this evidence – as well as expert testimony on the syndrome — could not be considered unless they first found repeated abuse by Hunter, the court ruled last month.

“In sum, in a case where there is evidence that the defendant was abused by one or more third parties before the decedent allegedly abused her, and an expert opines that all of the defendant’s abusive relationships contributed to her development of Battered Spouse Syndrome, a trial court may not instruct the jury to make a predicate finding that the decedent repeatedly abused the defendant, before the jury may consider all the evidence that goes to whether the defendant was suffering from the syndrome at the time  of the alleged offense,” Biran wrote.

“Because the trial court’s instruction told Elzey’s jury to make such a predicate finding before considering all the evidence bearing on whether Elzey suffered from the syndrome, it was erroneous,” Biran added.

The Maryland attorney general’s office and Elzey’s appellate attorney, James Kirkpatrick, declined to comment on the high court’s decision. Kirkpatrick is with Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington.

Elzey testified at trial 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 Special Appeals overturned the conviction, saying the judge’s instruction was flawed and the high court agreed.

Court of Appeals Judge Robert N. McDonald, in a concurring opinion, wrote that “in a (hypothetical) case that did not involve evidence of past abuse by the decedent, evidence of the syndrome would appear to be more pertinent to a plea of not criminally responsible than to a claim of self-defense.”

McDonald was joined in the concurrence by Judge Brynja M. Booth.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in the case, State of Maryland v. Latoya Bonte Elzey, No. 3, September Term 2020.

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