District of Columbia
The defendant wife shot and killed her husband. The wife testified that the husband had behaved violently toward her on many occasions. On three occasions, the husband had strangled the wife until she passed out, and on one occasion the husband had thrown her against a wall and pointed a gun at her. The wife testified that she shot the husband in self-defense. At trial, the jury acquitted the wife of first-degree murder and second-degree murder, but the jury found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
On appeal in Lalchan v. United States, No. 19-CF-914 (D.C. Court of Appeals), the wife argued that the trial court committed a reversible error by declining to instruct the jury that it could consider the effects of the husband’s domestic abuse in assessing whether her perception of danger was objectively reasonable.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled in the wife’s favor and held that the trial court erred in concluding that evidence of the effects of the husband’s battery of the wife was not admissible to show that the wife’s perception of danger was objectively reasonable at the time that she shot her husband (at 8).
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals explained that evidence of a defendant's life experience and background, as it bears on the defendant's rational perceptions, is relevant to the objective reasonableness of action allegedly taken in self-defense (at 8). An instruction to a jury to consider the effects of battery in considering whether a defendant’s perception of danger was objectively reasonable would not be contrary to the District of Columbia’s prohibition of diminished-capacity defenses. Individuals who have been subjected to intimate-partner abuse can develop automatic responses to such signs of imminent abuse — these are ordinary human reactions, not an abnormal mental state or disorder (at 9).
The Court also rejected the prosecutor’s suggestion that because the wife was not diagnosed with “battered-woman syndrome” the requested instruction would be improper. The Court noted that the expert was not testifying about a diagnosed mental illness, but rather was testifying about intimate-partner violence and its common effects (at 12).