Understanding Battered Spouse Syndrome in Michigan Law

In the late hours of August 10, 2009, Joni Holbrook, a mother and friend to many in her community, took her husband's police issued firearm and shot her husband multiple times while he slept.  Melvin Holbrook, a decorated veteran of the Michigan State Police, lay dead from the wounds.  At first glance, this case seemed to be an open and shut First Degree Murder case.  However, when we were retained to represent Joni, it became apparent that the major issue of the case was the question of why would Joni kill her husband. 

Through our investigation of the case, we quickly discovered that Joni had been a victim of extreme abuse at the hand of her husband.  This victimization took place over the course of nearly ten years.  Additionally, our private investigator uncovered evidence that during the course of his previous marriage, Joni's husband's ex-wife had attempted to kill him by shooting at him with a firearm multiple times. 

Based on this unique set of facts, it was clear that Joni had suffered some type of emotional damage resulting from her years of abuse.  Utilizing a nationally renowned psychologist, we were able to determine that Joni's actions could only be explained by what has been described as "Battered Spouse Syndrome."

The Michigan Supreme Court first recognized the existence of Battered Spouse Syndrome as being at least "documented" in 1990, although this was in the context of discussing the fact that ‘“syndrome’ evidence as it relates to child abuse cases is a relatively new development in the law and novel to our Court.” People v Beckley, 434 Mich 691, 706-707, 706 n 15; 456 NW2d 391(1990)  The Court cautioned that a "syndrome" was a constellation of symptoms, not a diagnosis per se, although if “a common underlying pathological process can be identified as the causal agent of the pattern of symptoms,” then a syndrome can be evidence of that underlying pathological process.  Id at 707 n 16

Battered Spouse Syndrome was directly addressed in the context of an assertion of self defense in a homicide case in People v Wilson, 194 Mich App 599, 600-601; 487 NW2d 822 (1992)  In Wilson, The defendant was charged with open murder, admitted to shooting her husband while he slept, asserted that she had done so in self defense, and sought to admit expert testimony regarding “battered spouse syndrome.”  As the Court emphasized, at least one other court had described Battered Spouse Syndrome as follows:

 “The ‘battered woman syndrome’ generally refers to common characteristics appearing in women who are physically and psychologically abused by their mates. The typical pattern of violence consists of three recurrent phases of abuse: a tension-building stage, characterized by minor abuse; an acute battering stage, characterized by uncontrollable explosions of brutal violence; and a loving respite stage, characterized by calm and loving behavior of the batterer, coupled with pleas for forgiveness.  The continued cycle of violence and contrition results in the battered woman living in a state of learned helplessness.  Because she is financially dependent on the batterer, she may feel partly responsible for the batterer's violence, she may believe that her children need a father, or fear reprisal if she leaves.  The battered woman lives with constant fear, coupled with a perceived inability to escape.  Eventually, she comes to believe that her only options are enduring the abuse, striking back, or committing suicide.”  Id at 603(quoting Tourlakis v Morris, 738 F Supp 1128, 1134 (SD Ohio, 1990), citing Fennell v Goolsby, 630 F Supp 451, 456 (ED Pa, 1985))

The Wilson Court observed that “the majority of jurisdictions” favored admission of expert testimony regarding battered spouse syndrome, and the “average juror is [not] familiar with the complex behavior of a victim of [battered spouse syndrome].”  Id at 603-604  The Court further observed that evidence about the syndrome had been admitted in those jurisdictions to, among other things, “explain the reasonableness of the battered spouse’s perception that danger or great bodily harm is imminent, and also to rebut the prosecution’s inference that the defendant could have left rather than kill the spouse.”  Id at 604  The Court then concluded by holding that “in cases such as this one expert testimony regarding the BSS [Battered Spouse Syndrome] will give the trier of fact a ‘better understanding of the evidence or assist in determining  a fact in issue.’”  Id (quoting Beckley, supra, 434 Mich at 711)

The Court of Appeals again recognized the existence of “battered women’s syndrome” in People v Moseler, 202 Mich App 296, 299; 508 NW2d 192 (1993), lv den 445 Mich 919 (1994). 

The Michigan Supreme Court addressed Battered Spouse Syndrome in People v Christel, 449 Mich 578; 537 NW2d 194 (1995), reh den 450 Mich 1212 (1995)  The Christel Court dealt with a situation where the prosecution introduced expert testimony regarding Battered Spouse Syndrome in order to rebut the defendant’s claims that the victim was a “liar, a perjurer, a self-mutilator, and an embezzler.”  Id at 584  The Court explicitly held that “battered woman syndrome evidence is from a recognized discipline,” and it also cited with approval its recognition “that a majority of jurisdictions favor the admissibility of expert testimony on the issue of the battered woman syndrome when offered as a means of self-defense.”  Id at 589, 592.  The Court reaffirmed “that the expert may, when appropriate, explain the generalities or characteristics of the syndrome.”  Id at 591

Specifically viewing Battered Spouse Syndrome, the Court then acknowledged Dr. Lenore Walker’s findings that a suffered of Battered Spouse Syndrome is:

 “a woman who is repeatedly subjected to any forceful, physical or psychological behavior by a man in order to coerce her to do something he wants her to do without any concern for her rights. Battered women include wives or women in any form of intimate relationships with men.  Furthermore, in order to be classified as a battered woman, the couple must go through the battering cycle at least twice.  Any woman may find herself in an abusive relationship with a man once. If it occurs a second time, and she remains in the situation, she is defined as a battered woman.”  (quoting The Battered Woman (New York: Harper & Row, 1979))

As the Court recognized, “Dr. Walker notes that a battering or abusive relationship often results in criminal litigation either against the abuser or the abused who retaliates.. . . When the precipitating facts of the syndrome are offered into evidence in either case, the syndrome is not easily conceptualized by lay persons.”  Christel at 588  Detailing this point, the Court then found that;

 “expert testimony on the battered woman syndrome would help dispel the ordinary lay person’s perception that a woman in a battering relationship is free to leave at any time.  The expert evidence would counter any ‘common sense’ conclusions by the jury that if the beatings were really that bad the woman would have left her husband much earlier.  Popular misconceptions about battered women would be put to rest, including the beliefs that the women are masochistic and enjoy the beatings and that they intentionally provoke their husbands into fits of rage.  Id (quoting State v Hodges, 239 Kan 63, 68-69; 716 P.2d 563 (1986), summarizing The Battered Woman))

The Christel Court then discussed with more specificity when and why expert evidence on battered spouse syndrome could be admitted by the prosecution.  The Court explained that “[g]enerally, expert testimony is needed when a witness’ actions or responses are incomprehensible to average people.” Id at 592  One such situation is “when a complainant endures prolonged toleration of physical abuse and then attempts to hide or minimize the effect of the abuse, delays reporting the abuse to authorities or friends, or denies or recants the claim of abuse.” Id  But unless a similar constellation of bizarre behaviors is displayed, or otherwise “expert testimony would be helpful in evaluating a witness’ testimony,” the evidence cannot be admitted.  Id at 592-593  The Court concluded that a bright-line rule was impossible to craft, but that the touchstone for admissibility was whether the complainant’s testimony or actions would be sufficiently incomprehensible to ordinary jurors that they would be helped by expert testimony.  Id at 597-598 

The Michigan Supreme Court has implied that Battered Spouse Syndrome actually was a “defense” in People v Lemons, 454 Mich 234, 249 n 22; 562 NW2d 447 (1997)  

The Michigan Court of Appeals found that evidence of battered spouse syndrome had been properly admitted against a defendant in People v Daoust, 228 Mich App 1, 10-11; 577 NW2d 179 (1998), lv den 459 Mich 943 (1999), overruled on other grounds by People v Miller, 482 Mich 540, 560-561; 759 NW2d 850 (2008)  The Daoust case involved admission of the expert testimony by the prosecution.  The Court reiterated the many years of Michigan Precedent regarding Battered Spouse Syndrome by stating that “[i]n Michigan, expert testimony regarding the ‘generalities or characteristics’ of the battered woman syndrome may be admitted for the limited purpose of describing ‘the uniqueness of a specific behavior brought out at trial.’”  Id at 10 (quoting Christel, supra, 449 Mich at 587)   Factually, the Daoust Court held that, under the circumstances, the expert testimony regarding Battered Spouse Syndrome was relevant and helpful to explain why the defendant’s girlfriend, who had been subjected to considerable abusive behavior, would have initially sought to protect her boyfriend from charges of child abuse despite knowing that he was responsible.  Id at 11

The most recent mention of battered spouse syndrome in a published opinion was in People v Dobek, 274 Mich App 58, 98-100; 732 NW2d 546 (2007), lv den 480 Mich 897 (2007)  Importantly, in this post-Daubert case, the Court performed a Daubert/MRE 702 analysis on whether evidence of whether the defendant fit the profile of a sex-offender.  The Court explained that an expert in Battered Spouse Syndrome “would share expertise regarding how women with the syndrome who have been subjected to abuse act and behave, thereby giving some assistance to the jury with respect to explaining the actions of the female complainant in the case before it.” Id at 99  In contrast, the defendant’s proffered testimony was simply about easily-manipulated test results that came close to vouching for the defendant’s veracity, rather than explaining a pattern of actual behavior already admitted into evidence, thus it was inadmissible.  Id. at 99-100

In People v Seaman, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Michigan Court of Appeals, decided Feb 13, 2007 (Docket No 260816). Iv den 480 Mich 888 (2007), Judge FORT HOOD (whose partial dissent was, in relevant part, adopted by the majority) strongly suggested, albeit by implication, that the defendant, who was charged and ultimately convicted of first-degree murder for killing her husband, had properly admitted testimony regarding battered spouse syndrome.  It just so happened that the jury did not believe her version of events and this Court affirmed the first-degree murder conviction.

In People v Schorling, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Michigan Court of Appeals, decided July 19, 2007 (Docket No 268026), the Court reiterated the acceptance of Battered Spouse Syndrome as it pertains to a self defense case, while denying the defendant's attempt to use teenage-bullying evidence to negate specific intent. 

Many other jurisdictions throughout the United States recognize Battered Spouse Syndrome as a scientifically acceptable condition and thus is relevant in self defense cases.  As the Missouri Court of Appeals has discussed in great length, and given an excellent summation of Battered Spouse Syndrome, by finding that over the last thirty years that:

 “Battered Spouse Syndrome has gained substantial scientific acceptance and has been recognized in numerous jurisdictions.  See State v Williams, 787 SW2d 308 (Mo App ED 1990); State v Koss, 49 Ohio St 3d 213, 551 NE2d 970 (Ohio 1990); Commonwealth v. Rose, 725 SW2d 588 (Ky 1987); State v Moore, 72 Ore App 454, 695 P2d 985 (Or Ct App 1985); Ibn-Tamas v US, 407 A2d 626 (DC App 1979)   The syndrome is a type of post-traumatic stress disorder that manifests itself in a collection of symptoms including a highly fearful state, isolation, withdrawal, and a heightened sensitivity to situations that precede violence or an increase in violence.  State v Hodges, 239 Kan 63, 716 P2d 563, 566 (Kan 1986)  The victim rarely discusses the situation with anyone due to a feeling that there is nothing that can be done.  Id  The battered spouse attempts to minimize the violence and to live for any positive aspects of the relationship.  Id  Victims exhibit a ‘learned helplessness’ in which repeated trauma causes the victims to learn that they have no control and cannot escape, and therefore, they stop trying to escape from the situation, even when an opportunity to do so is present.  Id; Williams, 787 SW2d at 312.” 

 See Missouri v Edwards, 60 SW3d 602, 612-613 (2000)

As an example of the many jurisdictions viewpoints on Battered Spouse Syndrome, the Edwards Court reiterated much of the Michigan view by finding that:

“While evidence of the battered spouse syndrome is not in and of itself a defense to a murder charge, its function is to aid the jury in determining whether a defendant’s fear and claim of self-defense are reasonable.  State v Borrelli, 227 Conn 153, 629 A2d 1105, 1114 (Conn 1993); Dyer v Commonwealth, 816 SW2d 647, 654 (Ky 1991) (overruled on other grounds by Baker v Commonwealth, 973 SW2d 54 (Ky 1998)); Hodges, 716 P2d at 570; State v Leidholm, 334 NW2d 811, 819-20 (ND 1983); People v Gomez, 72 Cal App 4th 405, 85 Cal Rptr 2d 101, 108 (Cal Ct App 1999)  The battering relationship is otherwise beyond the understanding of the average juror.  Hodges, 716 P2d at 567  It is difficult for a lay person to understand why a battered spouse does not escape the situation or notify the police. Id  A lay person may perceive that a battered woman is free to leave the spouse at any time. Id  Indeed, a juror may otherwise conclude by ‘common sense’ that if the abuse were so bad the woman would have left the relationship.  Id”

 See Edwards at 613

It is very clear that Battered Spouse Syndrome has been an accepted part of Michigan Precedent for over 18 years.  This is in addition to Battered Spouse Syndrome being accepted by Jurisdictions throughout the United States for nearly thirty years. 

Using these arguments, in Joni's case, we were able to convince the Court, over the objection of the prosecutor, that Battered Spouse Syndrome was a very real mental health disorder.  The Court ruled that we could present Battered Spouse Syndrome as a defense.  On the afternoon before trial, the prosecutor agreed to a plea deal where Joni received a six year prison sentence.


Jim Amberg is a partner at the lawfirm of Amberg & Amberg, PLLC.  Jim has tried and won misdemeanor, felony, and federal jury trials and routinely handles everything from Major Narcotics Conspiracy to Murder cases.  He argued and won the legally significant case of United States v Presley in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Jim also has sued courts to stop the practice of illegally incarcerating minors.  Jim is an active member of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, the Michigan Association for Justice, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  He has been named a Superlawyer by Superlawyer Magazine, a Top Lawyer by DBusiness Magazine, AV Rated by Martindale-Hubbell, and has a rating of Superb by AVVO.com.

If you have any legal questions regarding your case, please feel free to contact Jim at (248) 681-6255 or email at jamberg@amberglaw.net.