Bechtel v. State

The Facts

Defendant began seeing the victim romantically, but did not do so frequently until after he was divorced, and eventually married victim.  Victim domestically abused/hit defendant wife on multiple occasions.  He would randomly and without provocation beat and bang her head against wall, door, and cabinet surfaces.  Defendant was treated in the hospital for the abuse on three occasions.  On the final occasion victim came home drunk, held defendant by the throat and threatened to kill her.  He then began banging her head against the floor and raped her.  Afterward, defendant sat beside the bed and lit a cigarette.  The victim stared at her with a glazed look and defendant picked up her gun and shot the victim.

Procedural History

Trial court refuses to allow expert testimony on battered woman syndrome.  Defendant argues that battered woman syndrome impacts the defendant’s reasonable belief of an imminent threat.


“Fear alone never justifies one person to take the life of another.  Such fear must have been induced by some overt act, gesture or word spoken by the deceased at the time the homicide occurred which would form a reasonable  ground for the belief that the accused is about to suffer death or great bodily harm.”

For self-defense, the defendant must reasonably believe there to be an imminent threat.

The Issue

Whether the defense of battered woman syndrome is admissible at trial.

The Holding/Reasoning

Yes, decision reversed, new trial ordered. BWS is a sub-category of post-traumatic stress, which is recognized at common law.  The testimony helps the jury understand why the defendant reasonably believed herself to be in imminent danger of seriously bodily injury or death.  A symptom of BWS is “a greater sensitivity to danger which has come about because of the intimacy and history of the relationship.”  Because defendant suffered from battered woman syndrome and has an acute awareness of when a beating is about to occur, she is highly sensitive to his behaviors which precede beating.  Defendant, in the instant case, knew that her husband’s glazed look and drunkenness preceded a beating.  A slight action which a normal, unfamiliar victim would not perceive as threatening is the sign of a certainty for a BWS defendant who has familiarized herself with the signs of imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.  This is a subjective standard relevant to BWS victims.  “And so, the issue is not whether the danger was in fact imminent, but whether, given the circumstances as she perceived them, the defendant’s belief was reasonable that the danger was imminent.”


The court is correct to allow the syndrome as being presented to the jury, but goes too far in amending the self-defense jury instruction given in all cases as to be wholly subjective.


The present facts do not justify an implementation of BWS as a defense.  Moreover, the court is adopting a gender-specific defense.


States that have a wholly objective standards allow the BWS defense regardless of its subjective nature.  The BWS defense is entirely subjective.

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