Gay Relationships Also Subject to ‘Battered Person’s Syndrome’ : Violence: Proving the prior abuse can be difficult because police usually are not called. Jurists and laws often are unsympathetic.
The quarrel began at a bar and continued when John Wigglesworth III and Kenneth Smith returned home after midnight.
Wigglesworth pushed Smith into an aquarium and Smith stabbed him. Wigglesworth crawled across the street--Smith followed, and stood by crying as a neighbor tried to plug three stab wounds.
“You wouldn’t understand. He’s my lover. Please tell me that he’s OK. Please, please say yes,” Smith pleaded as he watched.
Wigglesworth died after a lovers’ quarrel, authorities say.
Smith’s lawyer, John Mitchell Jr., said except for its fatal conclusion, the incident was not unusual. The two had been together for a year, and early on Wigglesworth had started beating his client, Mitchell said--a couple of times a month, in bars and at home.
This was to be Smith’s defense--the “battered person’s syndrome.” Usually it is applied to women or sometimes children who have been pressed to violence in response to the violence they suffered.
But rarely has it been used as a defense in a case involving a gay couple. One reason is that courts have refused to hear it; another is that gays who have been battered rarely go to authorities, so they have little evidence of the abuse that led them to fight back.
“Many people . . . don’t trust discussing an issue so volatile with a heterosexual who might not respect their relationship to begin with,” said Robin Kane, a spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Smith, however, did have a record of abuse he could cite: Mitchell said there were battery charges pending against Wigglesworth at the time of the killing for an incident where Smith’s ribs were bruised.
Nonetheless, Kanawha County Circuit Judge John Hey ruled that he would not allow Smith to claim he was a victim of battered person’s syndrome.
Though the state accepted the defense in 1987 for a woman who killed her husband, “there’s no precedent in West Virginia for using that defense in the case of homosexuals,” Hey said during the August hearing.
Smith pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was given five years’ probation and credit for the year he served in home confinement.
The courts’ opposition does not surprise gay-rights advocates.
“We see the law as using our relationships only as weapons, as justification, in the hands of our murderers far more often than we see the law taking our relationships seriously in order to protect us,” said Evan Wolfson of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which supports gay causes.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, said homosexuals who report spousal abuse face slim odds that their abusers will be convicted.
About 350 cases of battery among homosexual partners are reported to his organization every year, but only about three make it to court, he said. In the three most recent cases, two of the accused batterers were acquitted.
In 1991, an Ohio appellate court ruled the state’s domestic violence laws must cover homosexuals. But experts are unaware of similar rulings elsewhere, and some states’ laws explicitly exclude gay and lesbian couples.
In this kind of a hostile environment, it is little wonder that battered person’s syndrome is nearly unheard of in cases involving homosexuals.
Denise Bricker, now a federal judge’s clerk in New Haven, Conn., said the first time a woman used the defense in connection with her female lover’s death was in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1989.
Annette Green was convicted of fatally shooting her lover, but the judge gave her the minimum prison term, sympathizing with her claim that she acted in self-defense after years of abuse.
“It’s a relationship among humans,” Circuit Judge Tom Waddell said.
Last year, in a very different kind of case, Peter Schneider said he was driven to kill his male boss, Dennis Waymire, after being sexually assaulted repeatedly. Schneider is heterosexual and Waymire was bisexual, Schneider’s attorney said.
The court in Yakima, Wash., ruled that Schneider was a victim of battered person’s syndrome and sentenced him to 21 months in prison for manslaughter, 10 months less than the standard sentence for the crime.
“When you view the deliberation and planning that went into the killing of Dennis Waymire, it has to be done through the prism of the battered person syndrome,” the judge said at sentencing.
Paul Mones, a Santa Monica, Calif., lawyer and an expert on battered person’s syndrome, was one of Schneider’s attorneys.
“We argued equal protection. If you have battered woman’s syndrome, why should it be limited by gender if one can show that the same dynamics are there for men as well?” Mones said.
“What’s really at issue is not the sexual orientation, but the intimate relationship and the power dynamics,” said Charles Patrick Ewing, an associate professor of law and psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
“To say that it’s not valid simply because two people were members of the same sex strikes me as untenable,” Ewing said.
He said gay men face double discrimination in the courts “on the theory that a man certainly wouldn’t find himself in that kind of situation where he was trapped and couldn’t escape from his abuser.”
But Kane of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force acknowledged that the gay community has only recently begun to address the issue.
“In the past five years there has been an increase in visibility in this issue . . . so people can feel safe stepping forward,” she said.