Intimate Partner Homicide Syndrome: Are Women Justified in Killing an Abusive Partner?

Dory Mizrachi[1]

University of Nevada, Las Vegas

 Why is it that some women in abusive relationships end up killing their significant others, while other battered women continue to endure pain and suffering, while living their lives in silence tolerating anguish and pain? Everybody has a breaking point and it is especially prevalent among abusive women. It is generally acknowledged that in America, almost half of all marriages end in divorce (American Psychological Association, 2013). Within many of these marriages, the grounds for divorce stem from mental and physical abuse upon the female. There are about 1.3 million women who are victims of physical abuse by their intimate partners each year” (NCADV, 2007, p. 1).

When dealing with spousal abuse, there are a number of questions that one can seek answers for. For instance, what causes hostility between significant others? What drives one woman to live a life of abuse and accept it while another woman might rebel against the abuse to the extent that she becomes driven to take the life of the person who is doing the abusing? Another question one might ask of women who take the life of their intimate partner is why are some women convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms while others are able to use the defense of “insanity” or the “battered woman’s defense” and avoid incarceration?

Unless one has been in an abusive relationship, it is probably difficult to imagine what a women might be going through with such stress and unhappiness that as a last resort or in a fit of passion that they could end up taking the life of someone who was abusing them; it is more than likely a result of utter frustration and the inability to cope with the abusive situation rationally. Who would know how to look within oneself and realize when they are being pushed to the limit, that they are no longer thinking rationally and be able to control themselves or the emotional torment which might result in the ultimate crime of killing an abusive partner. One could possibly say that a woman who endures physical violence is experiencing what may amount to a form of slavery. Women in abusive relationships sometimes enter into those relationships because of experiencing a lack of self-esteem, therefore, becoming most vulnerable and easily manipulated and can be driven to feel they have no other choices. Those choices are limited even in the law enforcement and court systems, which give little credence to the women’s complaints, perpetuating the lack of desire for woman to reach out for the necessary help, trust and support from the legal system.

According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, one man is murdered by a female intimate partner every day in this country. The data also shows that “most intimate partner homicides occur between spouses, though girlfriends and boyfriends have committed about the same number of homicides in recent years” (Domestic Violence Resource Center, 2013, p. 3). When we think of abusive relationships ending in a fatality, what usually first comes to mind is male-on-female homicide. However, as the problem of domestic violence continues, and with our legal system continually failing to help women with their agonizing situations, we are seeing an increasing number of women taking matters into their own hands, out of a feeling of desperation or last resort. There have even been circumstances where women have actually sought to hire hit-men to murder their abusive spouses.

This research paper intends to investigate the cause and effect and related circumstances involving intimate partner homicide committed by women. It will discuss the main causes of this phenomenon, such as motivation, psychological and physiological considerations, lack of support for battered women in our legal systems, as well as a discussion on the most commonly associated psychological theory of the battered women’s syndrome.  This paper will also address the various effects and diverse and inconsistent outcomes due to a myriad of factors that women who commit such acts experience when defending themselves in court.


The Nature and Extent of Domestic Violence  


Domestic violence is a worldwide phenomenon, and “is the most prevalent form of violence. Regardless of age, violence between family members is more common than violence between acquaintances or strangers” (Tolan, Gorman-Smith and Henry, 2006, p. 559). It is present in every culture, socio-economic and educational levels. Between 600,000 and 6 million women are victims of domestic violence in the United States each year” (Domestic Violence Resource Center, 2013, p. 1). The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) defines domestic violence as:

The willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior perpetrated be an intimate partner against another, it is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, race, religion, nationality or educational background. Violence against women is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior, and thus is part of a systematic pattern of dominance and control. Domestic violence results in physical injury, psychological trauma, and sometimes death. The consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and truly last a lifetime (NCADV, 2007, p. 1).


People relate to domestic violence in various ways. Some refer to it as “intimate partner abuse, family violence, wife beating, marital abuse and partner abuse, to name a few” (Horner, 2005, p. 206). Domestic violence can be identified sometimes by one simple word - control - and occurs when one person abuses an intimate partner, including violence by women against their male partners, heterosexual conflicts and violence between lesbian and gay couples. Furthermore, domestic violence doesn’t just concern physical violence, but verbal and psychological abuse, as well.

In most instances, spousal abuse is a major contributing factor to female perpetuated intimate partner homicide. In research conducted on intimate partner violence, it was almost immediately apparent that women often resist acts of violence committed against them with violence of their own (Johnson, 2008). “Studies show that when men commit murder they typically kill people they don’t know well, usually over money, power or when they lose face. Female-perpetuated homicide, on the other hand, typically has a personal emotional component. The victims are usually people they have been intimately involved with who may have initiated some type of aggression toward them at some point in their life” (Women Who Kill, 2010, p. 2).   


The Battered Women Syndrome (BWS)


          The battered women syndrome is a psychological theory that attempts to explain certain behaviors of women who have suffered abuse from their husbands, partners or lovers. In describing and defining BWS, Dr. Lenore Walker, a well- known expert and respected psychologist and researcher in the field and who works on behalf of battered women, defines a battered woman as: “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” (Heaven, 2008, p. 593). She contends that BWS serves as an explanation for why some abused women ultimately kill their abused partners (Walker, 2009).

The battered women syndrome has become very controversial. It is argued that BWS alludes to women as being helpless and submissive and does not factor in the complex emotional circumstances that evolve relationships in which battering occurs. However, the courts have allowed expert testimony in murder trials and it seems to be increasing over the years. In the past three or four decades, defense attorneys have been using expert testimony on BWS to support claims by women who are on trial for killing their abusive partners (Walker, 2009).

Dr. Lenore Walker, who was the first to use the term, “battered women syndrome,” claims that women in abusive relationships experience a three stage “cycle of violence.” She argues that being involved in this cycle often negates a woman’s ability to seek help from law enforcement, court services and social service agencies. The three stages of Walker’s cycle of violence are the “tension building” phase, the “battering stage” and the “honeymoon phase” (Walker, 2009).

In the first stage in the cycle, the tension-building phase, Walker says a woman is exposed to minor physical violence and verbal attacks from her abuser. The abused woman tends to blame herself for the abuse and tries to minimize, justify, and accept the abuse. This stage, according to Walker, can last for years (Walker, 2009).

The second stage in the cycle is the “battering stage.” When the minor physical and verbal attacks become more repetitious, it creates more friction and strain on the relationship and leads to the woman no longer being capable of pleasing her abuser. Walker alludes to this as being the “acute battering incident,” where the violence becomes so brutal that the woman begins to fear major injury or death (Walker, 2009).

The third stage, “the honeymoon phase,” seems to quickly follow the battering incident and typifies the batterer’s lack of violence and expresses what Walker calls, “contrite loving behavior.” During this phase, the batterer tries to be apologetic and begs for forgiveness. The batterer tries to convince the woman that he will take some rehabilitative action, such as giving up alcohol to prove his sincere intentions (Walker, 2009).

Walker’s three-stage cycle of violence theory is that when women experience these cycles of violence, it causes a woman to develop “learned helplessness,” which she says is “a psychological state of mind” (Heaven, 2008, p. 594).

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition that was first introduced by psychologist Martin Seligman. Walker uses Seligman’s theory to explain why some women are reluctant to leave their abusers. According to Walker, this perspective can be described as the woman feeling mentally and emotionally inhibited, trapped and inhibited from escaping even though escape is possible. Consequently, the woman becomes increasingly accepting of her fate and tends to have less and less motivation to get out of the abusive relationship. Unable to leave the relationship, the woman is exposed to more abuse and, therefore, perpetuating the cycle of violence (Heaven, 2008).


Other Factors Contributing to Intimate Partner Homicide


It seems ironic that women who are physically abused by their husband or male partners are victimized twice, first by the abuse from the intimate partner and then the unconscionable circumstances that await them when are thrust into the sexist American criminal justice system. The sad fact is that women are treated as second class citizens in this country in many different aspects of life. Women are still dealing with fighting such battles as for equal pay in the workplace and they must still fight the battle against sexist attitudes in the criminal justice system. For many centuries in most societies around the world, beating women has been the accepted norm and still exists in many countries and, unfortunately, is rarely viewed as law- breaking behavior. The FBI is of a strong belief that the most frequently occurring crime in America today is that of wife abuse (Bannister, 2011). Moreover, Bograd states that, “abusive women in the home is part of contemporary family life” (Bannister, 2011, p. 317).

When considering wife abuse, it must be looked at in context with other forms of violence than men use against women: “at least 1 out of every 3 girls will be sexually assaulted by a family member or a stranger by the time she is 18 years old; women have an almost 1 in 2 chance of being raped or being the victim of an attempted rape during their lives; and women who leave abusive males will typically experience a 74% drop in income sending them and their children below the poverty level (Bannister, 2011, p. 317). These staggering statistics support the fact that women live in a violent environment.

The Criminal Justice Response: Law Enforcement and Courts

Another important aspect in understanding why women commit intimate partner homicide is the lack of law enforcement and court response and the reliance on either law or self-help, which depends largely on the principals who are involved in the conflict. “Roughly 80% of female intimate partner homicide involves the murder of an intimate partner” (Chesney- Lind and Pasko, 2013, p. 134). There seems to be very few legal remedies available to women in need of help, in comparison to men, and much has been written concerning the limited recourse in the criminal justice system for protecting victims of domestic abuse.  However, this only represents a small part of a wider legal inequality which includes enforcement of child support payments to limited enforcement of protection orders. It is fairly obvious that in law there is little protection for victims; it is even more severe for women of color and lower socio- economic status (Chesney- Lind and Pasko, 2013). 

Bannister suggests that in certain instances judges sometimes refuse to follow the law, even those laws that require them to enforce particular mandatory sentences on abusers. He cites a Hawaiian law that requires a convicted batterer to serve 48 hours in jail and be ordered to receive counseling (Bannister, 2011).  However, during a five-month time period in Honolulu in 1987, “only 1 out of 111 convicted batterers was sent to jail and only 8 were sent to counseling” (Bannister, 2011, p. 327).

Moreover, the writer suggests that men who kill their wives are either treated leniently or even excused of their crimes because some judges perceive that the woman probably goaded the husband into the act of killing her. This points out to an obvious “gender bias” and shows clearly the differences of outcomes and sentences regarding women killing men and men killing women (Bannister, 2011).

A case in point is a 1984 Denver case where a man received a sentence of two years’ work release for killing his wife by shooting her in the face five times. The judge’s justification for that sentence was “the woman’s provoking acts,” describing that she left her abuser without warning him and also filed an order of protection without telling him where she was (Bannister, 2011). This, the judge said, provoked her husband into an enraged state of uncontrollable passion, “as it would any reasonable person under the circumstances” (Bannister, 2011, p. 327).   

It is Bannister’s contention that battered women who kill their abusers in self-defense rarely receive the necessary compassion from the court system. It seems that judges are perpetuating those same prejudices and stereotypical beliefs that are prevalent in society as a whole. This is possibly the result of state court judges being made up of mostly white middle aged males with more traditional than most attitudes (Bannister, 2011).

Many social scientists believe that many positive changes have been applied in law enforcement and the court system when it deals with intimate partner violence. However, it is difficult to overcome the centuries of lack of respect for the females in society both around the world and in this country, and therefore, some of the cultural bias against women seems to treat their complaints about domestic violence with less importance and/or urgency until it may result in the death of the abused or the abuser. The criminal justice system as a whole, has all too often treated intimate partner violence as not all that dangerous or serious (Johnson, 2008).

This attitude has been changing dramatically due to the ongoing education of the general public, especially among law enforcement officials, and has been encouraged by the battered women’s movement. Protective orders are now available in all states and there appears to be regular training of personnel in all police departments in all states regarding intimate partner violence. This positive attitude has spilled over to prosecutors and judges and many jurisdictions now prosecute batterers regardless of the desire of the victim to prosecute the perpetrator (Johnson, 2008).

However, due to the newly mandated arrest laws in some states, women who are, ironically, victims themselves are increasingly being arrested for domestic violence as a result of law enforcement getting tough on more offenders who are the actual victims who are involved in violent resistance. It seems that these victims are being re-victimized by the system itself. This all leads to a tragic dichotomy that is operating in our society in a sort of Catch- 22 concept (Johnson, 2008).


 “The Battered Woman Defense” to Intimate Partner Homicide


          The use of the battered woman syndrome in criminal courts in the United States was initiated in the late 1970’s. However, qualified experts are urged to testify on this syndrome as they must in other cases. The particular case that actually started the use of the battered women syndrome as a defense in court was State of Oregon v Kelly (1985). This case allowed the battered woman syndrome to be admissible in an attempt to aid juries when they need to assess the defendant’s perception of danger that the abuser represented (Yavanoff, 2013). “Evidence of battered women syndrome not only explains how a battered woman might think, react or behave, it also places the behavior in an understandable light” (Yavanoff, 2013, p. 1). The concept is if the defendant is successful using this defense in court, she can be successfully acquitted of the violent tactics and actions that she used in her defense against her violent abuser (Yavanoff, 2013).

          The term battered woman syndrome as a defense is somewhat a misnomer, according to a consensus from a report from four major federal agencies, which include: U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Justice and the National Institute of Mental Health.  The report by the aforementioned agencies asserts that “there is not a battered women’s defense, per se. Expert testimony in these cases, when introduced by the defense, should be used to support a battered woman’s claim of self-defense or duress, not to replace it” (U.S. Department of Justice, 1996, p. 6) Incidentally, battered woman syndrome as a defense has never been a defense in and of itself, however, when the term battered woman defense is referred to in this paper, it is specifically relating to the claim of self- defense used by a battered woman.

          According to Bannister, “over one-third of the women who live with male lovers or husbands are beaten by those men during the course of the relationship and men are rarely arrested for these crimes; and when they are arrested and prosecuted, they are rarely convicted” (Bannister, 2011, p. 316). Bannister further states that men who kill their wives in many cases often receive lenient sentences, but women who kill their male abusers, however, rarely receive any leniency from the courts. Women’s claims of self- defense are many times refused and the sexist tone of the court system usually silences these women and claims of self-defense are many times discounted, and they are more often than not sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The treatment of women in the criminal justice system sadly represents the degree of respect that women receive from a male dominated society (Bannister, 2011).

          A sobering aspect of the use of the battered woman defense at trial appears to not be a guaranteed successful tactic for courts to accept even when domestic violence is proven.  “A study of 223 reviewed appellate opinions of battered women’s homicide cases found that battered women defendants are convicted after trial at roughly the same rate (75-80%) as are defendants in other homicide and serious felony trials” (Free Battered Women, 2013, p. 2). “Two other studies suggest that battered women who kill are either being convicted or taking a plea at a rate between 72% and 78% nationally” (Free Battered Women, 2013, p. 1).  It is also interesting to note that “of the 45 women on death row in 1993, almost half (approximately 49%) had a history of abuse and were, therefore, killing an abusive spouse or lover” (Free Battered Women, 2013, p. 1).  It seems that the way the courts treat women in the legal system relates back to the beginning of time, when women were seen as inferior to men. In countries around the world, there are varying degrees of denying women equal rights or lifestyle considerations when it comes to how women are supposed to function in society. In some countries women are not allowed to drive, in others, they are denied the right to get an education. In other countries, their culture and laws deny them protection from being abused, and as unreasonable as it may seem, in some countries, when women are abused the general belief is that women are abused because they appear to deserve it.

          The battered woman defense is actually very controversial. Advocates for battered woman believe than every female defendant who has killed an intimate partner did so because she was a battered woman. Both prosecutors and advocates disagree on the attempt of defense attorneys to call every domestic violence homicide crimes of passion. It can be argued that if these defenses become too generic they lose their effectiveness and it distorts the opportunity to defendants who are anticipating using it, under certain circumstances (Lucibello, 2003).

          The courts have struggled for quite some time on how to deal adequately with women who decide to use the battered woman defense as a reason for killing their abusive intimate partner. Even though the number of battered women who kill their abusers has remained small, the growing domestic violence reform movement has tried to champion the self-defense issues in certain cases. Early on, when battered women tried to present expert psychological testimony describing the battered woman syndrome, they ran into evidentiary difficulties. Now, appropriate testimony is commonly admitted in just about every state, sometimes as a result of judicial decision, but oftentimes as a result of a states’ legislature’s action. A few states have stiffened their self-defense rules in order to be more responsive to battered women who decide to use the battered woman defense. As an example, the Florida Supreme Court, in Weiand v State, modified and overturned one of its prior decisions that made it easier for a defendant to not be required to retreat before using deadly force against an abusive cohabitant (Kinports, 2004).                       

When Congress commissioned the Justice Department to do research on this issue recently, the report supported the assertion that “domestic violence is associated with a wide range of traumatic psychological reactions” (Kinports, 2004, p. 167). The acceptance of this fact has led courts to change their initial reluctance and admit expert testimony, however, the battered woman syndrome theory has created some increasingly combative reactions from both sides. (Kinports, 2004).

          It should be understandable that women who kill their abusive intimate partner use the battered women defense at their own risk. There is no guarantee that the particular defense will prevail within the legal system today and receive the desired consideration from its juries and even the judges who are an intricate part of the functioning of our judicial system. 


Conviction and Incarceration of Women Who Have Killed an Intimate Partner


Shelden et al. describe the connection between women’s victimization and crime as follows:


Prior victimization is a significant background variable for women who commit certain crimes. Studies indicate that the majority of women who commit murder kill someone they knew intimately, such as a husband or boyfriend. Many of the women (40 to 78%, depending on the study), had experienced abuse; many of them fit the battered-woman syndrome. Over half of all women prisoners have experienced some form of abuse; more than one-third experienced sexual abuse. One of the pathways leading women into a life of crime and repeated contacts with the criminal justice system is victimization by the men in their lives. Kathleen Daly describes a typical pattern that begins with an intolerable home situation, which leads to running away, which results in prostitution as a source of income to survive on the streets, which replicates the cycle of victimization either by male clients or intimate male friends. Eleanor Miller found an almost identical scenario in her research on a group of women offenders in Milwaukee. The women she studied had abusive parents (often alcoholic), and their lives of crime typically began with running away, after which they became involved in the lives of a variety of abusive men (Shelden, Brown, Miller and Fritzler, 2014, pp. 382-383).


It is well-known that the vast majority of women in prison have been the victims of domestic violence (Chesney-Lind and Pasko, 2013). According to the most recent data, “As many as 90% of women in jail today for killing men had been battered by those men” (Purple Berets: Women Defending Women, 2013, p. 1). Elizabeth Dermody Leonard, in her book Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill, presents disturbing ideas about the flaws in the legal system that have worked against the women accused of killing their abusive domestic partners, and which has contributed to the reasons why many accused women end up in prison. As a conclusion to her research, she discovered some of the reasons why most women are not able to successfully use the battered woman defense in their fight against incarceration (Davidson, 2003).  Those reasons include: “ineffective legal representation- because attorneys did not understand domestic violence, because attorneys were male, because the abuse was not introduced at trial, because there was no assistance from experts, in one case, because the attorney died and in another because the attorney was impaired by a substance abuse problem” (Davidson, 2003, p.133). Leonard found that some women entered into plea bargains in the attempt to protect their children and spare families, or in the attempt to receive a lesser sentence rather than a conviction a trial might result in.




No matter where one looks in trying to find the motives, psychological meaning, search for justice and understanding when an abused woman kills her abuser, the concept of sexism permeates the entire issue. For centuries, women have been treated as second-class citizens and that attitude persists even today in many parts of the world and to some degree even here in the United States. Some of this thinking comes from ingrained cultural experiences and another part of it is a feeling of power of one gender over another, or attaining power and of course, the always present religious themes that support the idea that men are superior to women, always have been and probably always will be.

The reason I chose this topic is because I can personally relate to certain aspects of this issue. I was an abused wife, both physically and mentally. Fortunately, I was able to get out of my abusive relationship by getting divorced, however, I can understand the stress and frustration that women who kill their significant others have to suffer.  I was very lucky, probably more than more women in my position, at my age and with young a child. My parents gave me all of the support that I needed, both emotionally and financially. Most of my worries were taken care of, however, even after my divorce, I still am still dealing with thoughts of inadequacy and regret for not being able to give my child the chance of growing up with his parents together as I have seen mine. There are several thoughts that come to mind when thinking about my former and current situation. Even though it was a negative experience and a demeaning relationship, I came out of it with a bigger understanding of myself.  When I look back on what I recently dealt with, I realize how fortunate I am to be blessed with such a wonderful support system so many other women do not have, and that I was not driven to do what some women were driven to do. They say we learn from our mistakes and my failed marriage was a valuable learning experience for me. It gives me the motivation to continue to grow as a human being and to provide a better life for my son and educate him on women’s place in the world; they are not to be abused, they are to be respected and loved.



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[1] Dory Mizrachi is a graduate assistant in the Department of Criminal Justice, UNLV.  This is a revision of a graduate paper written in the fall, 2013.