Is 'Battered Woman's Syndrome' a Get Out of Jail Free Card for Murder?

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“He had it coming … He had it coming … he only had himself to blame … if you’d have been there … if you’d have seen it, I bet ya you would have done the same!” — Cell Block Tango; CHICAGO.

One seemingly uneventful evening, Matthew Winkler lay in bed sleeping when his wife, Mary, crept into their bedroom carrying his shotgun and shot him close range, in the back. The shot broke his spine and tore into his internal organs. After being mortally wounded, he rolled onto the floor and asked her, “Why?” As blood poured from his mouth, she whispered that she was sorry and ran out without dialing 911. She packed her three daughters, then ages 8, 6, and 1, into the family car and fled to Alabama.

Stunned parishioners from the church where Matt worked as a preacher, found his body in the Winkler’s home the next day. When authorities caught up with Mary in Alabama and questioned her about the shooting, she confessed to the crime. She claimed that she snapped after years of abuse. At trial, she defended herself by claiming the “Battered Woman’s Syndrome” (BWS) … and now she is a free woman after serving only 145 days in prison and 60 days in a mental health facility.

The BWS defense is that victims of abuse are psychologically traumatized to the point that they are incapable of forming rational thoughts, making it impossible to be responsible for their violent actions. The BWS defense is a justification for why a woman may have felt she had to defend herself and sometimes even kill her abuser. If used successfully in court, the BWS defense considerably lessens the penalty an offender will receive.

But can this defense be taken too far? Is it a free ticket to “get out of jail” after killing an abuser? Is justice still being served or is the BWS issuing a license to kill?

At Mary Winkler’s trial, the prosecution pressed charges for first-degree murder under which she would have faced a potential lifetime prison sentence. The defense argued that Mary suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which rendered her unable to form the intent to commit first degree murder. (BWS is a subcategory of this according to psychological diagnostic criteria.) The jury ultimately found her guilty of a lesser offense: voluntary manslaughter. The conviction still involved the intentional killing of a human being, but here the offender had no prior intent to kill. Instead the offender is said to act during “the heat of passion,” under circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed, thus absolving them of full responsibility for the crime.

The penalty for voluntary manslaughter is much less than for murder — a sentence of only three to six years in prison as opposed to a possibility of life for murder. Just take a moment to recognize how monumental a difference this defense can make! If used improperly we might be putting cold-blooded killers back on the street. We might even be giving them back their children without any reassurance that they won’t act violently again!

In fact, Mary Winkler’s only real, lasting punishment has been separation from her daughters. Since her arrest she has only seen her daughters twice. Her late husband’s parents have temporary custody of the girls and are working hard to adopt them and terminate Mary’s parental rights. But a judge ruled on September 19, 2007 that Mary Winkler can begin supervised visits with her daughters on September 29.

In order to succeed in using the BWS defense, the victim must generally prove that there was real abuse and that she acted out violently because she believed that it was necessary for self-defense or because she believed she was in imminent harm. How much abuse is enough to rise to the level to implicate this defense? How much evidence is needed? Further, does lack of evidence always mean that it doesn’t exist? The problem is that abuse victims often wish to keep abuse private and avoid the public, especially after a particularly rough episode. Thus it’s hard to determine when lack of evidence of an abusive relationship means a woman is improperly trying to use the defense or if it just means she was hiding abuse that she was ashamed of.

So was Mary Winkler really abused to the point that she should have been absolved from essentially all responsibility for murdering her husband? While it’s clear that there was more abuse than the Winklers led on, was it really enough to meet the standard for a BWS defense? While family and friends testified to having seen occasional black eyes and bruises, according to an interview on Oprah, Mary Winkler revealed that behind closed doors, her husband’s terrible temper terrorized their family. Mary Winkler said her husband threatened her with a gun (ironically the same one which took his life.) She said he said he’d kill her and chop her into a million pieces himself. A teary eyed Mary also revealed that he sexually abused her and forced her to perform sex acts against her will. She also mentioned a particularly disturbing incident where he temporarily suffocated his daughter to stop her from crying by covering her mouth and pinching her nose. However, while it seems clear that she was a victim of abuse, what isn’t as crystal clear is that she was in imminent harm’s way. After all, he was sleeping and didn’t seemingly pose any such threat in that state.

Whether justice was served by such a short sentence in Winkler’s case is a moot point since she is already free. But concerns swirl in my mind as to whether this is setting bad precedent. Does the Winkler defense send the message that you can kill your husband if he’s abused you in the past? Further, if you can use this legal defense of BWS to exonerate yourself from consequences even in absence of imminent danger might this defense be encouraging these abused women to kill, rather than get out of an abusive relationship? While I certainly believe the defense has its place, I am equally concerned with potential for its abuse. We need a sane and rational basis for what is essentially a temporary insanity defense … and not a license to kill.


Mary Winkler

Voluntary Manslaughter

Did preacher's wife get away with murder?

Domestic Abuse

Preacher's Wife Killed Husband Because of Abuse

Abuse by a Pastor

Mary Winkler Told Cops She Shot Minister Husband After Fight

Winkler's appearance on Oprah

Battered Woman Defense Tested in Winkler Case

Battered Woman Defense


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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.