In the battered women’s movement, feminist psychologist Lenore Walker is an honored pioneer. A trail-blazing researcher in the study of battered women, she has profoundly influenced the public and the law’s view of domestic violence, helping to defend hundreds of women who killed their abusers.
So when battered women’s advocates heard last week that Walker was testifying for the defense in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the news was astounding.
Whether simply curious or downright offended by the prospect of Walker testifying on behalf of Simpson--once convicted of battering Nicole Brown Simpson and now accused of killing her and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman--members of the domestic violence community have been abuzz with the topic.
“I knew there would be a reaction,” Walker said in an interview Saturday. “But I had no idea it would be like this.”
Some such as Lynn Moriarty, director of the Family Violence Project of Jewish Family Service in the San Fernando Valley, worry that one of the best-known spokeswomen for battered women may be tarnished by her role in this most publicized of cases in which domestic violence has been raised as an issue.
“We’re all very surprised and concerned,” Moriarty said. “I hope that all of her work for this movement is not going to be discounted because people may see her as having sold out. I’m frankly mystified. . . . I sure could understand it if she were testifying for the prosecution.”
Walker, a clinical and forensic psychologist from Denver who originated the concept of the battered woman syndrome, says her office has been flooded with hundreds of calls a day, many from feminists distraught over her decision to join the Simpson defense team.
She has hired a New York publicist to handle the media and tries to explain to callers she is not abandoning the movement. By the time she gets off the phone with them, she says, most are supportive.
“There’s no question I’m an advocate for battered women. But I’m also a scientist. Because I will advocate for battered women doesn’t mean I will not tell the truth about science,” Walker said. “I am not saying O.J. Simpson is not a batterer. What I am saying is because you are a batterer that does not make you a murderer.”
Simpson’s guilt or innocence is for the jury to decide, she said, but by testifying, she hopes to ensure that the psychological data about domestic violence is not misrepresented by either side in the case.
“I believe that all of the work I have done in trying to measure battered woman syndrome and trying to present it in legal cases cannot tell us alone whether O.J. Simpson could have killed these people. You need other information. . . . I hope to be able to publicize the tragic consequences of domestic violence with the caution of looking at individual people’s behavior.”
Speaking generally, she added, “I really believe the Achilles’ heel of the battered women’s movement is the quick and harsh rush to judgment without enough information.”
Walker has known Simpson defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. since the early 1980s, when he was a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and headed a domestic violence task force.
She said Cochran approached her last summer through Geraldine Butts Stahly, a San Bernardino social psychologist who has worked with Cochran in several homicide cases in which he defended battered women.
“We both trusted Cochran,” said Walker, who has since spent hours evaluating Simpson. Even though the prosecution has referred to some of her studies in pretrial hearings, Walker said the prosecution has never called her.
The testimony of Walker and Stahly is likely to play a key role in defense rebuttal of the prosecution contention that Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder was the culmination of years of obsessive control and battering by Simpson.
Walker would not discuss the details of her testimony, but in his opening statement last week, Cochran indicated that she would make a variety of points: That when a batterer kills the person he has abused, there is usually an escalating pattern of life-threatening violence that precedes the homicide--and Walker does not see that pattern in this case.
Further, Cochran said, Walker will testify that Simpson’s behavior did not match the obsessive traits common to stalkers, that she does not find evidence that Simpson has an antisocial personality disorder and that statistics on abused women show that battering does not usually lead to homicide.
Often quoted and sought as a speaker on domestic violence, Walker has appeared on numerous television shows and written 10 books on the subject. Her 1979 book, “The Battered Woman,” was a bible to many in the movement.
Hiring Walker was a brilliant move by the defense, said Patricia Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. “They’re very smart, this team.”
Walker formulated the concept of the battered woman syndrome in the 1970s, discrediting the notion that abused women stay in violent relationships because they are masochistic. Instead, Walker said, such continued abuse can produce a pattern of psychological effects, including high anxiety, low self-esteem and “learned helplessness” that can lead a woman to feel in such imminent danger that she kills her abuser.
Since 1977, Walker has testified on behalf of more than 350 battered women on trial for homicide, helping shape court law along the way. Every state now permits the introduction of battered woman syndrome in testimony and 10 states require it if the issue of battering is raised.
“You couldn’t find someone who’s been more important than she has in educating the courtroom about battered women,” said Julie Blackman, a New Jersey forensic social psychologist.
As of her last tally, Walker said acquittals were won in about 25% of the first-degree murder cases in which she testified. In the other cases, the woman was often convicted of reduced charges. She has also testified a few times on behalf of men accused of killing their wives.
In the Simpson case, Walker said, she is working in her customary forensic fee range: $200 to $400 an hour.
Although she has been lauded for her contributions to the battered women’s movement, Walker is not free of criticism.
In a 1991 article in the National Review, Gerald Caplan, now the dean of McGeorge Law School in Sacramento, wrote: “Reduced to its essence, battered woman syndrome is not a physician’s diagnosis but an advocate’s invention. It means: Blame the deceased.”
Caplan went on to cite a Wyoming Supreme Court decision that accused Walker of reaching conclusions before she had substantiated her theories.
Some feminists have complained that the battered woman syndrome plays into the stereotype of women as passive, weak and unstable. And some of her psychology colleagues have also taken issue, saying her theories do not take account of enough complexity.
“The battered woman syndrome as she presents it is not uniformly accepted in the scientific community,” said Richard J. Gelles of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island. “There are criticisms of both the research and the theory.”
Gelles, who is among those critics, said Walker has “always painted battered women as far more passive and clinically distressed than they really are.”
As someone who has studied thousands of men who batter, Gelles also suggested that Walker “was less than ideal” for the Simpson case. “As skilled as she is in the defense of women who killed their husbands, she has a lot less research experience than many people in the field on men who batter.”
Walker said she has done no research of her own on male batterers but was familiar with the work of others. As for criticism of her studies, she said there is always disagreement in science but her work “has stood the test of all kinds of awards.”
Although some say Walker’s testimony for the Simpson defense is bound to erode her standing, others are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“It will depend on what she says,” said Marsha Fingerer, a Florida psychologist who works in domestic violence. “I can’t imagine she’s going to contradict everything she’s ever stood for. . . . I don’t think she’d allow herself to be used in that way.”
* EVIDENCE DISPUTE: Prosecution, defense debate reliability of blood sample. A31