Marjory Dingwall confessed to three counts of robbery and three counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence, but she claimed she committed them under duress, fearing the violence she had come to expect from her abusive boyfriend. Dingwall filed a motion in limine, seeking a ruling on the evidence that she planned to offer to support her duress defense, including her own statement, emails, text messages, and an expert report from Dr. Darald Hanusa.
Dr. Hanusa’s report diagnosed Dingwall with PTSD and Battered Woman Syndrome as a result of her “extraordinarily extreme case of relationship abuse,” and concluded that “[an abused woman’s] attempts to decrease, minimize and stop the violence can include…criminal or illegal behaviors.” Battered Women’s Syndrome was coined in the late 1970’s by Dr. Lenore Walker to describe the psychological and behavioral traits common to women who are exposed to severe, repeated domestic abuse. Dr. Hanusa wrote that a symptom of Battered Women’s Syndrome was a change in the victim’s reality such that “she will take whatever action that has the highest predictability stopping the violence against her.”
The district judge concluded that Dingwall’s proffer was not sufficient under existing Circuit precedent because the duress requirements of imminence and no legal alternatives could not be satisfied in her case; however, the judge invited the court of appeals to change this precedent, stating “I hope that the Seventh Circuit joins the other circuits and says, ‘Look, this is a recognized psychological phenomenon that happens when…partners face severe abuse and it can have the effect of being so dominating in their mind that it really undermines their complete responsibility for what they do.’”
Is the immediate physical presence of the threat always essential to a duress defense, and should expert evidence of the effect of violence in an abusive relationship be permitted to support a duress defense before a jury?
The Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits
The Seventh Circuit sided with the Sixth, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits in an existing split between the aforementioned and the Fifth and Tenth Circuits. In Dingwall, the court rejected a strict physical proximity test to establish a reasonable fear of imminent violence. Instead, the court held that a reasonable jury could find that Dingwall’s abuser’s threats could cause a reasonable person to fear imminent violence. As such, the Seventh Circuit concluded that Dingwall should not have been denied the opportunity to offer expert evidence about the psychological impacts of battering on an objectively reasonable person, as it would have assisted the jury in determining how an ordinary person might act in the defendant’s position.
The Sixth Circuit heard a similar case in Dando v. Yukins (2006). Here, the victim helped her boyfriend commit a series of armed robberies over the course of a day. Although she was not always in his physical presence, her boyfriend was armed and had threatened to kill her. The court held that a history of violent abuse and imminent violent threats could lead a reasonable person to act as the petitioner had, and that evidence of Battered Woman’s Syndrome could strengthen the argument that the petitioner’s actions were reasonable.
Ten years later, the D.C. Circuit addressed this question in United States v. Nwoye (2016). Here, the defendant was convicted of extortion after her counsel did not present expert testimony on Battered Women’s Syndrome, resulting in the court’s refusal to give the jury instructions on duress. The trial court determined that because Nwoye’s abuser was not physically present at the time of the crimes and because she did not prove that she had no reasonable alternative to participating in the extortion scheme, she could not successfully assert a duress defense. However, the D.C. Circuit joined the Sixth Circuit by reversing the trial court’s finding and holding that expert testimony on Battered Women’s Syndrome may be admissible as evidence to prove duress. They reasoned that the duress defense requires that a defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances, and expert testimony on Battered Women’s Syndrome can help a jury determine if the defendant’s actions were reasonable.
Finally, in United States v. Lopez (2019), Lopez purchased a gun with a fake ID for her boyfriend after he threatened her and her family. She was then charged with federal crimes for lying to buy a firearm. Lopez offered expert testimony on intimate partner abuse to explain her behaviors, but the district court barred it, claiming it explained only a subjective standard, not the objective standard of reasonableness required to assert a duress defense. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that expert testimony on Battered Women’s Syndrome “serves an important role in helping dispel many of the misconceptions regarding women in abusive relationships.” Part of this important role is explaining how “a reasonable person can nonetheless be trapped and controlled by another at all times even if there is no overt threat of violence.”
The Fifth and Tenth Circuits
Conversely, the Fifth and Tenth Circuits have upheld the exclusion of expert testimony on Battered Women’s Syndrome, stating that it is not relevant to the objective reasonableness of a defendant or her behavior. In United States v. Dixon (2018), the Tenth Circuit held that courts may only consider “external, concrete” factors when determining the reasonableness of a defendant’s behaviors. They categorized Battered Women’s Syndrome as a “non-tangible psychological condition,” which courts may not consider. The Fifth Circuit also previously held in United States v. Willis (1994) that evidence that a defendant is suffering from Battered Women’s Syndrome is not relevant to a duress defense because it is inherently subjective.
The Seventh Circuit acknowledged that this decision does not guarantee the success of Dingwall’s duress defense, nor does it guarantee that the Battered Women’s Syndrome evidence will be admitted in trial. They merely overturned the exclusion of Dingwall’s proffered evidence on the broad relevance reasons provided. This case will be remanded to the district court.