Evidence of Abuse Can Be Used in a Criminal Case When a Defendant Asserts the Battered Child Syndrome Defense

Currently, in Middlesex County, a case has been presented involving the tragic case of a son, John Mahoney, who shot and killed his father, Jerry Mahoney, a 49-year-old veteran of the police department. John, who was 19 years old at the time of the incident, is asserting that it was self-defense.  More specifically, he has claimed that he suffers from “Battered Child Syndrome.”

In cases where a defendant has been charged with a crime involving the use of force, a defendant may assert a defense to justify why he needed to use such force.  Use of force is justifiable when the defendant reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by another person on the present occasion.  (See, N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4).  In other words, self-defense is the right of a person to defend against any unlawful force.  However, the force used by the defendant must not be significantly greater than and must be proportionate to the unlawful force threatened or used against the defendant.  Moreover, if the force used by the defendant was not immediately necessary for the defendant’s protection or if the force used by the defendant was disproportionate in its intensity, then the use of such force by the defendant was not justified and the self-defense claim fails. (See, State v. Bowens, 108 N.J. 622, 626 (1987).

Battered Child Abuse Syndrome is a subset of the self-defense defense used to describe a pattern of serious and unexplained manifestations of physical abuse in children, such as poor general health, malnutrition, multiple soft tissue injuries, poor skin hygiene, subdural hematoma, and long-bone skeletal fractures in various stages of healing. (See, State v. Moorman, 286 N.J. Super. 648, 658-59 (App. Div. 1996).  A similar defense arises in the situation where a woman claims to have Battered Women Syndrome, a series of common characteristics that appear in women who are abused physically or psychologically over an extended period of time by the dominant male figure in their lives.

Often, a critical issue that arises with the defense of Battered Women/Child Syndrome is the duration of time between the threatening act and the use of force.  That is because these cases often involve allegations of abuse over a period of time, and the use of force to protect themselves is directed against a deadly threat will come in the future, not an immediate and present threat.

In a burglary or theft case or other property crime, if the owner did not report the crime for several years, your common sense might tell you that the delay reflected a lack of truthfulness on the part of the owner.  In that case, no expert would be offered to explain such conduct because it is within the common experience and knowledge of most jurors.  By contrast, in a case where the person has been battered or abused over a period of time, expert testimony regarding Battered Woman/Child Syndrome can help explain the effects that a sustained pattern of physical and/or psychological abuse can have on a woman.

The law recognizes that many people believe that a woman or child’s claim that they were was battered or abused is not credible solely because they remained silent about the battering or otherwise did not act to stop it.  Evidence regarding Battered Woman/Child Syndrome is relevant, if believed by the jury, because it can explain that such behaviors are among the many ways that a person may respond to such battering.

In cases where Battered Women or Child Syndrome is asserted, defense counsel will provide expert testimony on the Syndrome, which is offered for only a specific reason – to support the honesty and reasonableness of the defendant’s belief that he/she was imminent danger of death or serious injury at the hands of the abuser.  Thus, expert testimony is provided for only a limited purpose – supporting the credibility of defendant’s belief that defendant acted in self-defense.  That is the sole reason for the admission of this expert testimony on the Syndrome, and the evidence is not admissible for any other purpose.

Thus, a limiting instruction that must be read to the jury is that they may not consider evidence regarding Battered Child Syndrome as proving that battering did or did not occur.  Battered Child  Syndrome cannot be used to determine whether or not the defendant was, in fact, abused.  Instead, Battered Child Syndrome, if proven, may help explain why an abused child may remain silent or take no action.

Battered Women/Child defenses are difficult to address and must be presented properly from the inception of the matter.   Accordingly, if you or a loved one has been charged with a crime where such a defense may be at play, it is imperative that you find a skilled and experienced trial attorney to handle your matter.