Understanding the Battered Women Defense in Missouri

Kimberly2 1Author:

Kimberly J. Benjamin, Founder & Managing Attorney

Battered Women Defense


Domestic violence or assault is a criminal offense in Missouri and other parts of the United States. However, despite being a crime, many incidents of domestic violence are still recorded in the state each year, with women making up most of the victims.

Apart from their physical injuries, domestic violence victims, especially those exposed to the violence for significant periods, often suffer varying degrees of mental disorders or behavioral issues, including the battered woman syndrome (BWS), sometimes called the battered spouse syndrome. BWS is considered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and is characterized by several negative behaviors, such as constant anxiety and learned helplessness.

Not all battered women experience BWS, but for those who do, the results are often devastating. Because of the abuse, these women are forced to endure, they are often convinced that the only way to escape their abusers is to cause them serious physical injury or kill them.

If they take steps to actualize that thought by harming their abusers, they would likely face criminal charges for domestic violence, murder, assault, or related offenses depending on the extent of the injuries they were able to inflict.

If you are a domestic violence victim facing such charges, you must defend yourself in court. Otherwise, you may be convicted for a criminal offense even though you only acted to protect yourself. Thankfully, the law will allow you to use evidence that you suffer from BWS to defend yourself and possibly avoid a conviction.

This guide explains how the battered woman defense works under Missouri law to help you prepare for your case at the trial court. Keep reading to learn more.


A Brief Background to the Battered Woman Defense


Generally, individuals who are accused of crimes that involve the unlawful use of physical force against others are allowed to rely on the fact that they acted to defend themselves or others (that is, they acted in self-defense) to escape conviction. However, to succeed with a self-defense claim, they need to establish certain elements, including that:

  • They faced an imminent threat or were in immediate danger from the person they harmed.
  • Their fear of harm was reasonable in the circumstances. This means that they need to show that a reasonable person in their shoes would have acted similarly.
  • The force used was not excessive but proportionate to the threat. For example, a person (A) who shoots someone (B) multiple times because B raised their hand to slap A, A would find it difficult to sustain a claim of self-defense. This is because A’s response was excessive compared to the threat they faced.

However, many battered women or individuals facing criminal charges for causing harm to their abusers in the past faced a unique situation. Because they did not take action or act violently against their abuser during the acts of abuse but waited until their abuser was asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware before acting, it was difficult for them to prove self-defense; since, at first glance, it would seem that they were not in any immediate danger that warranted their use of (deadly) force.

Many women in such situations were forced to plead guilty to their charges, hoping to get a lesser sentence. Others who were able to avoid a conviction were successful because they relied on the defense of insanity caused by their abuse. This situation was problematic because a successful insanity plea often resulted in the defendant being committed to a state hospital, mental health facility, or otherwise held in custody.

But as BWS research advanced, it became clear that many of the victims who harmed or tried to harm their abusers were indeed acting in self-defense because the threat against them and their fear of harm was constant. This led to the creation of specific self-defense rules for BWS victims in the criminal laws of many states, including Missouri.


How the Battered Women Defense Works in Missouri


Missouri law on BWS defense was enacted in 1987. But the language of the law uses the gender-neutral term “battered spouse syndrome,” which means that the defense is available to both men and women.

The law allows the court to accept or admit evidence that a defendant in a criminal case suffers from battered spouse syndrome to support their claim that they acted in self-defense and their use of force was justified. This means that if you’re facing criminal charges for violence against your abuser, you may no longer be required to prove all the elements of self-defense to avoid a conviction as long as there is evidence proving that you suffer from battered spouse syndrome. But there are certain conditions required to establish this defense as follows:

  • You must file a written notice with the trial court before your trial, explaining that you intend to rely on the battered spouse syndrome in your case. You may need a criminal defense lawyer to represent you and file the notice on your behalf so there are no mistakes.
  • Battered spouse syndrome cases require the expert testimony of medical personnel to succeed. As such, the court would appoint an appropriate medical professional to examine you and determine whether or not you suffer from the syndrome.

If you test positive for BWS/battered spouse syndrome, then your defense will likely succeed. Otherwise, sustaining a self-defense claim may be difficult. You may need to find alternative defenses to avoid a conviction.


Does the Battered Spouse Defense Apply Only to Individuals in Marital Relationships?

The Missouri Court of Appeals clarified in a 1990 case, State vs. Williams, that despite the use of the term “spouse” in the statute, the battered spouse defense is not restricted only to abused persons who committed violent crimes in a marital relationship. The defense may be used by anyone who suffers intimate partner violence, regardless of their marital status.


How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help


Dealing with a domestic violence charge in Missouri is difficult because your freedom and life are at stake. Depending on the nature of the damage you caused the other party, you could spend a lot of time or the rest of your life in jail. Hence you must do all you can to defend yourself and avoid a conviction. As such, it is important that you have a strong ally- in the person of a criminal defense attorney to advocate for you and represent you throughout your case.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys understand how the battered spouse defense works and can help determine your qualification for the defense. If necessary, they can involve medical professionals to provide an initial evaluation so you’ll know whether pursuing the defense would work in your favor. They can help you find alternative legal defenses that could help you avoid a conviction or at least get a reduced sentence if the battered spouse defense is inappropriate.


Get Help With Your Case From Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys at the Missouri DWI and Criminal Law Center


The battered spouse defense in Missouri allows you to avoid a conviction when facing criminal charges for causing harm to your abuser. But the criminal justice system is often unpredictable, and you’ll need an alternative line of defense in case you fail to qualify for the defense after the official psychological evaluation.

Our skilled attorneys at the Missouri DWI & Criminal Law Center can assess your case and help you formulate a suitable defense strategy with or without the battered spouse defense to help you succeed in court. So, if you have questions about your domestic violence defense case, including how to drop a domestic violence charge in Missouri or the statute of limitations for domestic violence, rest assured that we can help you find answers.

Nothing is cast in stone, but you can trust us to handle your case with diligence and do all we can to help your case progress toward a positive outcome.

Contact us immediately to get started.