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Is abuse a legal justification for murder?

A jury will decide if Mary Winkler is guilty of first-degree murder

NBC VIDEO
Jury considers fate of preacher's wife
April 19: A jury is deliberating the fate of Mary Winkler, the woman accused of murdering her preacher husband, Matthew. MSNBC Senior Legal Analyst Susan Filan talks about the case.
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Susan Filan
Senior legal analyst

The case of Mary Winkler, the minister’s wife who allegedly shot her husband Matthew in the back while he lay in bed, is now in the jury’s hands.  The burning question on everyone’s mind is "why did she do it?"  Was it first-degree premeditated murder, or did the mild-mannered woman just “snap” after enduring abuse?   If convicted, she faces life in prison with the possibility of parole. 

The defense argued Winkler was a battered spouse and as a result she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.   Because she had endured years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, she was incapable of forming the “intent” to kill, according to her lawyers.  Winkler’s defense argued she was too upset, too helpless, too beaten down to form the intent to kill.   They argued she lacked the requisite intent to kill and therefore cannot be convicted of first-degree murder.  The defense also argued accident, that she was a battered spouse and the gun went off by accident.  

But even if someone is a battered spouse, does that provide legal justification to kill? Usually, the battered spouse defense is raised in the context of self-defense.   Typically, courts have held that the battered spouse defense is best raised in a case in which the defendant reasonably believed she was in imminent danger and the use of deadly force was reasonably necessary.   In Winkler’s case, her husband was lying in bed, unarmed.  While he may have abused her in the past, there is no evidence that she was in imminent danger or that she reasonably feared for her life or the lives of her children at the time of the shooting.  

If you are not in imminent danger, then why get a shotgun and not a divorce?  Why not leave?  

While I am enormously sympathetic to victims of domestic violence, I cannot support the notion that it is legal to kill your abuser as a way out, unless you or your children’s lives are in imminent danger and deadly force is the only way to protect yourself or your children.   You have to leave, not kill.

The intent to kill
The prosecution is arguing Mary Winkler committed murder and has to prove “intent” in order to convict her of first-degree murder.  In Tennessee, first-degree murder is a premeditated and intentional killing of another.  Premeditation is an act done after the exercise of reflection and judgment.   Premeditation means the intent to kill must have been formed prior to the act itself.  It is not necessary that the purpose to kill pre-existed in the mind of Winkler for any definite period of time.   It could have been formed the minute she went to the closet and got her husband’s shotgun.   The state has to prove that when she pulled that trigger, her mental state was sufficiently free from excitement and passion.  

I think the state has a good case.


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