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Is abuse a legal justification for murder?

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.

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.

Winkler’s actions sound deliberate and intentional to me.   They don’t sound like they arose out of self-defense or in the heat of a passionate argument.  Matthew Winkler was in bed.   He was unarmed.  Winkler went to the closet, got a gun, took it out of its case and shot him.  She grabbed her kids and fled the state.   It is not like she just grabbed a lamp or whatever was closest to her and bashed him in the middle of a fight or in self-defense. 

Let’s say for the sake of argument she was a battered spouse.  In her own words, she said she was sick of her husband’s constant criticism over the “way I walk, what I eat, everything.   It was just building up to this point.  I was just tired of it.  I guess I just got to a point and snapped.” Let’s say for the sake of argument she did just “snap.” The snap argument would mitigate intent.   She wasn’t in her “right” mind.  But it doesn’t sound like snapping to me when she walked to that closet, got the shotgun, pointed it at her husband as he lay in bed and pulled the trigger.      

Based on those facts, I believe she formed the intent to kill.    She says the gun went off by accident.  Guns don’t magically discharge bullets; their triggers have to be pulled.   If she was just holding the gun as she claims, then why was she holding it with her finger on the trigger unless she intended to fire it? 

Did she just snap?
If you listen to the evidence in this case, as I understand it, I don’t think you can buy the “battered-spouse-I-just-snapped” defense either.

According to reports, the Winklers argued the night before his death.  Mary was upset over the way Matthew disciplined one of her daughters.   She wanted him to listen to her so to get his attention Mary allegedly went to the bedroom closet where she knew her husband kept a 12-gauge shotgun he used for turkey hunting and took it out of its case.   She says she does not remember firing the gun, but remembers that the noise didn’t sound as loud as she thought it would. 

The single shotgun blast left 77 shotgun pellets in Matthew’s back and knocked him out of bed.   According to statements Mary gave to police, as her husband lay on the floor, she wiped the blood from his mouth with a sheet.  When he asked her why, she said she was sorry.   She told her children they had to leave because Daddy was hurt and she had called 911.  She never made that call.    

The shot broke Matthew Winkler’s spine.  He couldn’t move.  There was a phone cord and jack underneath him in blankets on the floor.  It is unclear if Mary ripped the phone out of the wall so he couldn’t use it or if his injuries rendered him helpless to use it.   He was alive when Mary Winkler left the room, but he was bleeding to death as she went down the hall to get her three girls out of the house.  She left the state with the girls in the family mini van, stayed in a hotel with an indoor pool, and then took them to the beach the next day to “have a good day” before the “bad days.”  

It sounds to me like she knew what she was doing and that she knew she had done something wrong.   I believe she is sorry, I believe she is remorseful, but that does not legally excuse or justify what she did.

I do not believe our law permits a battered spouse to legally kill one’s abuser, when not in imminent danger, but simply when one has “had enough.”

We need to do more for battered women, but giving them a free pass to kill isn’t the answer.