From Fear to Rage: Black Rage as a Natural Progression from and Functional Equivalent of Battered Woman Syndrome

Article excerpt

Between 1993 and 1995, Americans witnessed a series of notable, highly publicized criminal trials.(1) The most recent notable trial, that of O.J. Simpson,(2) resulted in a not guilty verdict that proved difficult for some to accept.(3) The criminal verdict also was accompanied by a decrease in the level of faith in the criminal justice system.(4) For many, however, doubts about the ability of the current criminal justice system to punish wrongdoers and by extension, to protect society at large, likely predated the Simpson verdict.

From the much publicized Menendez trial, to the much discussed Bobbitt trial, Americans have questioned judicial acceptance of "abuse excuses."(5) When evaluating the guilt or innocence of the accused, jurors were urged to consider battered child syndrome in the Menendez trial and battered woman syndrome in the Bobbitt trial.(6) Both battered child syndrome and battered woman syndrome are commonly asserted abuse excuses.(7) Although some people may not accept them as valid defenses to criminal behavior, defense attorneys expect to use abuse excuses whenever the opportunity should present itself.(8) Few people, however, anticipated the black rage defense claimed by Colin Ferguson, the assailant in the Long Island Railroad shooting,(9) and even fewer people were willing to accept the black rage defense.(10) Some commentators argue that as long as the excuses are legitimate, they should be allowed.(11) Others, including some defense attorneys, warn that accepting an expanding number of abuse excuses as defenses eventually will undermine the functioning of our criminal justice system.(12)

This Note addresses the link between battered woman syndrome, battered child syndrome, and black rage in homicide cases. The first section presents a brief overview of traditional defenses to homicide such as self-defense and insanity and addresses the admissibility of psychological expert testimony in general. The second section defines battered woman syndrome, battered child syndrome, and black rage and analyzes the method by which courts accept and employ each defense. The third section argues for admissibility of expert testimony regarding black rage in order to establish a defendant's insanity. This section also asserts that battered woman syndrome and black rage should receive equivalent treatment. Finally, the fourth section cautions that although black rage theoretically is viable, in practical application the consequences of accepting black rage may prove too enormous for it to become a successful defense.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

Traditional Defenses to Homicide

Black rage as a defense to homicide has a foundation in criminal jurisprudence. To accurately understand and assess black rage as a defense to homicide, it is necessary to recognize the nuances of traditional, widely accepted defenses to homicide.

Self-Defense

Self-defense is one of the oldest justifications for homicide in American jurisprudence.(13) Self-defense requires that the use of deadly force be limited to cases involving protection "against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat."(14) A defendant asserting self-defense through use of deadly force must demonstrate a reasonable belief in the necessity of the force, a lack of initiation of the altercation on the part of the defendant, and an inability on the part of the defendant to retreat without the use of deadly force.(15) The legal effect of accepting a claim of self-defense in homicide cases is an acknowledgement that the accused caused the decedent's death but that such action was justified given the circumstances and therefore, no crime was committed.(16) When the self-defense theory prevails, the accused is neither convicted nor punished.

"Imperfect" Self-Defense

Imperfect self-defense invokes a slightly more subjective view of traditional self-defense theory. …

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