Battered Woman Syndrome

Dr. Charles Heller has specialized knowledge and is considered an expert in all forms of domestic violence, providing expert witness testimony and consultation to attorneys in the analysis of intimate partner violence in civil, criminal and family court cases.

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is the most recent way to describe abuse of women in various kinds of relationships.  The concept of IPV evolved from the concept of “Battered Women Syndrome (BWS),” 1 and both pertain to domestic abuse or relationship abuse. IPV and BWS are ways to describe as a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship. As illustrated below “the Power and Control Wheel” describes what occurs in an abusive relationship (Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. www.duluth-model.org).

By reviewing the different sectors of the “Power and Control Wheel” Dr. Heller can address specific abuse characteristics of any relationship to illustrate how the perpetrator uses power, coercion, as well as physical and mental abuse to control the victim of intimate partner violence.

Dr. Heller has the experience and training necessary to perform a “Danger Assessment”2 which assesses the level of risk and the level of lethality potential in an abusive relationship (Campbell, et al 2009). He received Danger Assessment Certification from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in the use of the Danger Assessment and the Levels of Danger Scoring System to evaluate the level of danger in domestic violence cases.

Dr. Heller helps a judge or jury understand the original term Battered Women Syndrome (Walker, 1979)3 as well as other expanded descriptions or explanations of intimate partner violence. BWS is not a clinical diagnosis and gives a somewhat stereotypical and pathology focused emphasis in describing woman who are battered. The field of domestic violence has evolved and tends to take the emphasis away from the syndrome based model, which does not take into consideration deviations manifested in the complex behavior of battered women or the variations in the original cyclical theory described by Walker.  The broader concept of IPV addresses and includes cultural, social and clinically diagnosable PTSD symptoms frequently observed in battered women.  The terms BWS and IPV both facilitate a comprehension of the victim’s history of abuse and fear. Both concepts assert that being abused can result in the battered woman killing her abusive partner. Additionally, both concepts assert that a battered woman is likely to commit another kind of crime due to coercion and control perpetrated by the abuser.  In sum, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a different way to describe domestic violence compared to Battered Women Syndrome (BWS), which does not take into account some of the complex variables observed in domestic violence situations. However, courts accept the term Battered Woman Syndrome due to the general acceptance in the field of Psychology. It is not surprising that the American Psychological Association filed an amicus brief in a murder trial because Lenore Walker was not allowed to testify about BWS. The issue was whether expert testimony on battered women’s syndrome is admissible to help establish claims of self-defense in a murder case.  In the amicus brief, APA described the research utilized in BWS and supported the use of testimony about BWS. Through the years, BWS has achieved general acceptance scientifically and in practice within the Psychology field and courts have ruled it admissible at trial.

Dr. Heller can assist the court, the jury and attorneys in cases that involve intimate partner violence in the following ways:

  • Provide the jury and the judge with both an understanding of general principles of domestic violence and a framework within which to analyze the unique facts of the particular case being heard before the court.
  • Help a jury understand why the battered woman perceived herself to be in danger or why she believed it was immediately necessary to protect herself.
  • Help the jury understand that a battered woman’s anger is a normal feeling after having been battered.
  • Help the jury understand why the battered woman fought back on this occasion, and not on previous ones.
  • Show the jury (using research) how the risk of serious or lethal violence against the victim often increases if the woman leaves the batterer-and she is acutely aware of this.
  • Educate the jury in order to facilitate recognition of physical and mental health effects of domestic violence combined with the effects of culture may have influence the battered women’s responses to abuse.
  • Instruct a jury about the many psychological injuries that occur to women from intimate partner violence that are not readily apparent.

Dr. Charles Heller’s qualifications to testify in a case involving Intimate Partner Violence or Battered Woman Syndrome:

  • Dr. Heller has testified in over one hundred trials that involved varying aspects of domestic violence.
  • Dr. Heller is on staff at Rutgers University, Biomedical and Health Services (RBHS), University Behavioral Healthcare assigned as a Forensic Psychologist at State of New Jersey correctional facilities where he has evaluated criminals adjudicated as batterers and who have murdered, assaulted and mentally abused their domestic partners.
  • Dr. Heller presented to colleagues a workshop entitled: A Child’s preference for the batterer in child custody cases: An assessment protocol” at the 49 th Annual Conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC).
  • Dr. Heller has provided consultation for attorneys in murder cases and other violent crimes that involve Intimate Partner Violence and its effects on the defendant.
  • Dr. Heller has instructed attorneys and provided legal continuing education about the Psychological aspects of Battered Woman Syndrome as a Legal Defense.
  • Dr. Heller has extensive experience working with battered women as a therapist and as a supervisor of counselors in a domestic violence clinic in New York, having received a Certificate of Appreciation, for his service.
  • Dr. Heller has served as the Director of Behavioral Health Services for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, where he provided supervision of staff, direct services for victims and training about intimate partner violence.

 

A recent case illustrates how Dr. Heller was able to educate a jury about Intimate Partner Violence/Battered Woman Syndrome and help the jury understand exactly what contributed to the woman killing her husband:

Candace Cummings, 36, was arrested in November, 2016 and charged with first-degree murder of her husband.  After initially claiming the shooting was an accident, she later confessed to standing over her husband while he was asleep and shooting him in the head.   Candace told police that the “stress” of the relationship became too much for her, and that’s why she shot her husband. Candace was facing a mandatory sentence of life without parole if she was convicted of first-degree murder, a sentence of 25 years to life if convicted of second-degree murder and a sentence of not more than 10 years if convicted of voluntary manslaughter. The judge included all three charges for the jury to deliberate on.

The defense team found strong evidence of physical abuse many years earlier in the marital relationship and former employees of the deceased husband also described his temper. There were holes in the wall of the house attributed to his temper. However, psychological injuries commonly observed in victims of intimate partner violence needed to be described to the jury. Dr. Heller testified about the psychological signs and symptoms that the average person who had never been exposed to these situations would not understand. Dr. Heller explained to the jury that there are no physical signs like a black eye or bruise that are seen when a woman suffers psychological abuse. He testified that blaming, using male privilege, intimidation and isolation as well as using children are all signs of an abusive relationship, explaining the elements of the above diagram called “The Power and Control Wheel.” He also testified about the three phases of the “cycle of abuse,” which start with phase one, comprised of small events and intimidation (tension building), progressing to the second phase which involves an acute episode of abuse and finally to a third phase called contrition, in which the perpetrator apologizes and promises never to do it again. Dr. Heller told jurors that abuse victims often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and numerous other psychological injuries that contribute to these victims not feeling safe even after the abuser is gone. He also explained that sometimes just leaving or calling the police can put the victim in even more danger, that the most dangerous time for the woman is when she takes out a protective order or tries to leave. He also described the concept of learned helplessness, which makes it virtually impossible for the woman to leave-making her feel like she is in a state of siege. The myths and misconceptions about victims were also explained by Dr. Heller.  He concluded that when an attack has physically ended, a victim of long-term abuse does not perceive the attack as being done as soon as it is over. After two days of deliberations in June, 2017, the jury found Candace guilty of the lesser charge and returned a conviction of voluntary manslaughter.

Dr. Heller’s expert testimony about IPV/Battered Women Syndrome, can differ in criminal cases depending on whether he is testifying for the prosecution or the defense as illustrated below. All of the items below can be used for either Prosecution of the abuser or in the Defense of the victim.

TESTIMONY FOR THE PROSECUTION OF ABUSERS TESTIMONY FOR THE DEFENSE OF WOMEN
Explain why a victim recants. Describe all the factors of IPV/Battered Women Syndrome as illustrated in “the Power and Control Wheel.”
Explain why a victim doesn’t appear at trial. Explain how the processes and effects of abuse can result in a victim of IPV assaulting or killing the perpetrator of IPV.
Educate the jury about typical abuse behaviors of the perpetrator. Describe the concept of duress and how it contributes to the victim participating in other crimes
Educate the jury about the behavior of victims of domestic violence. Explain why battered women feel powerless to stop the perpetrator from harming or killing others.
Describe all the factors of IPV/Battered Women Syndrome as illustrated in “the Power and Control Wheel.” Explain why battered women may give false confessions, different descriptions of the abusive relationship, reconcile, and/or recant what they previously said.
Explain the complex psychological injuries and other effects of trauma and battering. Describe common misconceptions about IPV and the behavior of victims.
Describe why a victim modifies her story. Explain, compare and contrast how the relationship between the defendant and her abuser are manifested in IPV.
EVALUATING THE LEVEL OF RISK IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES:

Describe the results of the “Danger Assessment” which assesses the level of risk IPV victims have and the level of lethality potential in an abusive relationship (Dr. Heller is certified to administer this). The Danger Assessment can be done by interviewing a woman who survived an attack or in the case of her death by interviewing a proxy (a close friend or confidant with whom the deceased victim shared about her life and fear).

EVALUATING THE LEVEL OF RISK IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES:

Describe the results of the “Danger Assessment” which assesses the level of risk IPV victims have and the level of lethality potential in an abusive relationship (Dr. Heller is certified to administer this). The Danger Assessment can be done by interviewing a woman who survived an attack or in the case of her death by interviewing a proxy (a close friend or confidant with whom the deceased victim shared about her life and fear).

Explain why women may underestimate the risk of their intimate partner actually killing them. Educate the jury about the risk factors for intimate partner femicide
Explain why a victim reconciles with her abuser.

 

Review statistics that show what percentage of murdered victims either had told the abuser they were leaving or in the actual act of leaving.
Explain why in a domestic violence situation, children and adolescents may choose to live with the batterer rather than the primary caretaker (mother) victim. Review statistics that show what percentage of abusers killed the children as well as the mother.
Review statistics that show what percentage of murdered victims either had told the abuser they were leaving or in the actual act of leaving. Review statistics that show what percentage of abusers killed the victim and also committed suicide.
Describe the concept of learned helplessness and explain why a battered woman may feel like she is living in a state of siege and cannot leave. Describe the concept of learned helplessness and explain why a battered woman may feel like she is living in a state of siege and cannot leave.
Explain that when an attack has physically ended, a victim of long-term abuse does not perceive the attack as being done as soon as it is over. Explain that when an attack has physically ended, a victim of long-term abuse does not perceive the attack as being done as soon as it is over.

 

Dr. Heller is available for:

Case consultation and Evaluation.

Clinical examination of the Defendant.

An Expert Report to explain the pertinent issues of the case.

Expert Witness Testimony about intimate partner violence.

assessing the credibility of allegations of intimate partner violence.

Assessment and explanation of “counter-intuitive victim behavior” that presents as illogical or as a poor choice by the victim of sexual and/or domestic violence

 

 

 

  1. Please note that the term “Battered Woman” is used throughout this description since the vast majority of cases related to domestic violence include a female victim and a male perpetrator. It should be recognized that battered victims also include men abused by gay male, as well as female partners. There are many gender combination relationships and any person in any kind of relationship potentially can be a domestic violence victim.
  2. The Danger Assessment: Validation of a Lethality Risk Assessment Instrument for Intimate Partner Femicide, Jacqueline C. Campbell, Daniel W. Webster and Nancy Glass, Journal of  Interpersonal Violence, 2009, 24:653.
  3. The Battered Woman, Lenore E. Walker, 1979, Harper & Row, New York, N.Y.