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Experts say battered woman defense rarely results in acquittals

BARNSTABLE, Mass. --When Dr. Ann Gryboski walked into a Cape Cod courtroom to face a murder charge, her defense was as clear as the cuts and bruises on her face.

Gryboski shot and killed her husband of nearly three decades in April -- finally snapping, her lawyer says, after years of physical and mental abuse. She was ordered held on an unusually low bail of $50,000 -- the prosecutor even conceded there were "mitigating factors."

Still, despite the obvious signs of trauma and being in a state where courts have been sympathetic to battered women, there is no guarantee she will escape prison time. Experts and advocates say evoking battered woman syndrome in self-defense rarely gets women off completely.

The strategy works best when the defendant is a white, middle-class woman who has done what people have asked her to do, from getting a restraining order to trying to get into a shelter, said Sarah Buel, a clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

"It doesn't work as well in pretty much any other case," said Buel, who has worked with battered women for three decades.

Coined three decades ago, battered woman syndrome was popularized in a 1984 television movie, "The Burning Bed," which starred Farrah Fawcett as a Michigan housewife who set her husband on fire while he slept after 13 years of domestic abuse. Francine Hughes was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

More often, it results in reduced charges.

In April, Mary Winkler, the wife of a Tennessee preacher, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder for shooting her husband in the back. Winkler said her husband beat her and sexually abused her. She said the shotgun went off accidentally when she pointed it at him.

Gryboski told police she fired two shots at her husband, Patrick Lancaster, when he came at her as she was trying to break up a fight between him and their 25-year-old son, Christopher, who had confronted his father about his mother's black eye and swollen face. Gryboski told police that the night before the killing, her husband had repeatedly punched her as she drove with their 2-year-old grandson in the back seat.

"The bruises speak volumes about what happened," said her attorney, Kevin Reddington, who plans to argue self-defense using the battered woman syndrome. "She did what she had to do to protect herself and her children."

Gryboski, who has pleaded not guilty, is expected back in court July 27.

In Massachusetts, there have been only about a half-dozen criminal cases over the last two decades in which women claimed they specifically suffered from the syndrome. Only one of those women who went to trial was acquitted by reason of insanity -- a Bridgewater woman who admitted killing her boyfriend by plunging steak knives into his eyes as he slept. The rest were found guilty of murder or manslaughter.

At least 15 states have laws that specifically allow experts to testify on battered woman syndrome, according to the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, a Philadelphia-based resource and advocacy center. In other states, domestic abuse testimony is often allowed at trial.

Battered woman syndrome began gaining acceptance in Massachusetts courts during the "Framingham Eight" case in the early 1990s.

Eight women housed at the prison in Framingham challenged their convictions, arguing they should have been allowed to present evidence of battered woman syndrome during their trials.

Seven were eventually freed when their sentences were commuted by former Gov. William Weld. In 1993, the state Legislature passed a law that allows evidence of battered woman syndrome during trials.

The use of battered woman syndrome has had its share of critics, particularly in cases when a woman kills her abuser at a time when she does not appear to be in imminent danger, such as when the man is sleeping.

Lenore Walker, a psychologist who is credited with coining the term "battered woman syndrome" in 1977, recalled that in one of the first cases she worked on, the prosecutor argued that allowing her to testify about battered woman syndrome would mean an "open season on killing men."

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who criticized battered woman syndrome in his 1994 book, "The Abuse Excuse," said there are a limited number of cases where the syndrome is valid. But he said it is overused.

"I think in a great many cases it simply gives the jury a hook on which to hang their hat -- he deserved to die, he was a batterer, he had it coming, we're not going to put anybody in jail for killing this son of a bitch," Dershowitz said.

Eugenia Moore, the first of the Framingham Eight to have her sentence commuted, spent almost eight years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the 1985 fatal stabbing of her former boyfriend, whom she said abused, stalked and threatened her.

Moore said she still feels guilty about the killing, but believes victims of domestic violence should be allowed to present evidence of battering.

"I did this ugly act, I feel like there was nothing worse that I could have done. To this day, I feel that way, but you have to look at the circumstances," she said. "The jury should be allowed to hear the whole story."