Expert testimony regarding battered woman syndrome not affecting the question of defendant’s responsibility is not crucial to duress defense: First Circuit

Of the numerous defenses available to a defendant during the course of any particular criminal proceeding, the defense known as the battered woman defense has a special place in the defense pleas taken by someone alleges herself to be a victim of domestic violence. The battered woman defense is a defense used in court that the person accused of a wrongdoing was suffering from battered person syndrome at the material time. Battered person syndrome is a physical and psychological condition of a person who has suffered persistent emotional, physical, or sexual abuse from another person. Because the defense is most commonly used by women, it is usually characterised in court as battered woman syndrome or battered wife syndrome (BWS). The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, United States of America v. Yamil Navedo-Ramirez (2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 5016), recently dealt with a matter which involved a duress defense taken by the defendant, who claimed that she suffered from BWS at the time of the commission of the offenses for which she was convicted by the District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, and introduced expert testimony to support the claims.

The brief facts of the case are as follows: The defendant provided armed protection at a sham drug transaction orchestrated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a part of a sting operation designed to identify corrupt police officers in Puerto Rico. She took a duress defense alleging that she had been subjected to domestic violence at the hands of several men, and most recently, Wendell Rivera-Ruperto, who she claimed had led her to the drug transaction site without her having notice of the same. The defense had called upon and examined Dr. Carol Romey as an expert on the subject of BWS. However, the district court refused to admit the expert testimony into evidence, and convicted of aiding and abetting an attempt to possess with an intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. The defendant appealed the conviction, challenging, inter alia, the decision of the district court to exclude the expert testimony of Dr. Romey.

The First Circuit Court understood that the defendant had intended to introduce Dr. Romey’s testimony as an expert commentary on the general nature of BWS and the impact of domestic abuse on women to provide context for the defendant’s duress defense, such that would link the potential impact of the violence that the defendant had been subjected to with a case for total or partial mitigation of her criminal responsibility. The district court had reasoned that the expert testimony would not play a crucial role as the defendant’s testimony had already satisfied the jury as to her contention that she had participated in the drug transaction because she feared for her son’s life and her own. The First Circuit upheld this view, observing that the real issue was not whether domestic abuse could produce duress, but whether the defendant’s testimony was credible enough to attribute her participation in the crime to duress. The Court acknowledged it to be obvious enough that “any person might well be placed under duress if her child’s life were threatened by a supposed hit man, or if she were raped while involuntarily intoxicated”, as were alleged by the defendant. But the Court distinguished the case as not being one where the defendant had to further satisfy the judge whether she was in duress, but whether her association with the criminal acts could be solely accounted for by the fact of duress. It was concluded that Dr. Romey’s testimony would not have come to the aid of the jury in the determination of the latter, and thus, the district court did not err in its discretion in choosing to exclude the testimony from evidence.