Tuesday, August 3, 2004
State Supreme Court Rules: Single Incident Supports Battered Women’s Syndrome Testimony
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge did not abuse her discretion by admitting expert testimony regarding battered women’s syndrome against a defendant who had not been accused of abusing women prior to the incident in question, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 6-1 decision, the high court upheld the convictions of Cornell Cooper Brown on charges of making a terrorist threat, false imprisonment by violence, and misdemeanor battery on a domestic partner.
Brown, found by the trial court to have served four prior prison terms and to be a second-strike offender under the Three-Strikes Law, was sentenced to 10 years, eight months in prison by Judge Pamela Rogers, who has since retired.
The Court of Appeal reduced the sentence to 10 years, finding that an eight-month consecutive term for false imprisonment constituted multiple punishment for the same crime, since it was part of the same course of conduct resulting in the terrorist-threat conviction, but otherwise affirmed.
A divided panel in Div. Six held that Evidence Code Sec. 1107, which allows the admission of expert BWS testimony to explain “the nature and effect of physical, emotional, or mental abuse on beliefs, perceptions, or behavior of victims,” does not require a showing that the victim was previously battered.
The high court, however, said it was unnecessary to determine that issue because in Brown’s case, the evidence was admissible under Sec. 801 of the code, which permits the judge to admit expert testimony if it will “assist the trier of fact.”
Brown was arrested in April 2001 after a fight with Kimberly Pipes, who testified she had been dating him “on and off” for 11 years. She testified that she was lying when she told police he had pointed a knife and fork at her and threatened to cut her with the knife.
She told the jury that Brown had hit her in the stomach, but that she was not hurt and in no danger when she dialed 911. She made the emergency call, she said, only because she was angry.
She also testified Brown had never hit her before.
The deputy sheriff who responded to the 911 call said Pipes had told him a much different story. Pipes, he testified, said that Brown “grabbed her by the neck” and “dragged her into the master bedroom,” where he “threw her on the bed.”
She said he had a steak knife in one hand and a barbecue fork in the other, and threatened to cut her if she left. He said “I don’t want you having my baby”—Pipes thought she was pregnant at the time—then punched her in the stomach, “grabbed [Pipes] by the neck again and threw her on the bed and held her down, prevent[ing] her from leaving,” the deputy testified.
He added that Pipes appeared to be “very afraid of him” and complained of pain in her abdomen.
The BWS expert, Jeri Darr, said that the changes in Pipes’ story were typical of battered women. “It’s been estimated in research within the domestic violence field...that a victim will leave and return to her abuser on the average of three to five times before [she] decide[s] to separate permanently...,” she testified.
BWS victims, she added, typically hope that things will get better and that they will be able to recoup the emotional investment in their relationships. As a result, Darr testified, 80 to 85 percent of them will recant their statements at some point in the process, even if they have been seriously and visibly injured.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the high court, cited decisions permitting use of expert testimony to explain why rape or child abuse victims delayed in reporting the crimes and/or recanted their claims.
“When the trial testimony of an alleged victim of domestic violence is inconsistent with what the victim had earlier told the police, the jurors may well assume that the victim is an untruthful or unreliable witness,” the justice explained. “...And when the victim’s trial testimony supports the defendant or minimizes the violence of his actions, the jurors may assume that if there really had been abusive behavior, the victim would not be testifying in the defendant’s favor....These are common notions about domestic violence victims akin to those notions about rape and child abuse victims that [this and other courts have] discussed.”
There was a foundation for Darr’s testimony, Kennard elaborated, because there had been testimony that Pipes and Brown were in a “cycle of violence,” that they had argued on the evening when the alleged crimes occurred, that the argument escalated into a death threat by Brown, and that Pipes was assaulted when she actually tried to leave.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown, dissenting, argued that in Brown’s case, the BWS evidence was valueless and prejudicial.
“Here, the record contained no evidence Kimberly Pipes suffered from BWS. Not only had there been no pattern of physical or psychological abuse in her relationship with defendant, she flatly denied he had ever hit her in the past. Nor were there any of the substantive characteristics—dependency, control, isolation—-that mark BWS.”
Darr, Brown said, testified “at length” and “in considerable detail” about BWS, even though there was no evidence Pipes exhibited the syndrome. “[A] substantial portion of Darr’s testimony was irrelevant and should not have been admitted whether the evidentiary basis was section 1107 or section 801.”
Attorneys on appeal were William D. Farber, by appointment, for the defendant and Deputy Attorney General John Yang for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Brown, 04 S.O.S. 4088.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company