Maryland has a statute that permits the introduction of evidence in a criminal case that at the time of committing crimes including murder or manslaughter the defendant was suffering from battered spouse syndrome. The law defines the syndrome as a psychological condition of repeated physical and psychological abuse which is recognized in medicine and science. Whether the syndrome may be part of self-defense in a murder for hire case was explored in a recent 2-1 opinion from Maryland’s intermediate appellate court in the case of Karla Louse Porter v. State.
The majority opinion indicates that the defendant’s husband was shot to death at a gas station operated by the defendant and her husband. A shooter entered the gas station and ordered Mr. and Mrs. Porter to a back room, then shot and killed Mr. Porter and fled. The defendant called 911, reporting her husband had been killed during an attempted robbery. However, the next day her story quickly unraveled when a witness came to the police to report that months before the defendant tried to hire him to kill her husband. The ongoing investigation revealed several efforts by the defendant starting nine months before to hire a contract killer, that she provided the weapon, and that she made arrangements for the shooter to come to the gas station and commit the murder.
The defendant testified at trial to a long history of physical, verbal and psychological abuse from her husband. She claimed this worsened in the year before her husband’s death, including having a gun held to her head during the week before. The defense called a psychiatrist and a psychologist to support her claim of battered spouse syndrome. The trial judge did instruct the jury on self-defense and on the statute, but the jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and other crimes and she was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.
Among the issues on appeal was the propriety of the court’s jury instruction on self-defense. The Court found that the trial judge committed error in suggesting that the jury should apply an objectively reasonable standard in evaluating the defendant’s decision to use deadly force, when what was relevant was the defendant’s actual subjective belief that she was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury. However, the majority found, in this murder-for-hire case the defense should never have even gotten a self-defense instruction, because her involvement in an elaborate murder-for-hire conspiracy over many months meant there was no evidence that she was actually in immediate danger of abuse at the time of the shooting.
The dissenting opinion argued that even in this contract killing there was sufficient evidence to generate a possible defense of self-defense. It will be interesting to see if the State’s highest court reviews this to shed more light on potential defenses in such a case.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.