Abuse history and culpability judgments: Implications for battered spouse syndrome

Colin P. Holloway, Richard L. Wiener

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The United States legal system has accepted Battered Spouse Syndrome (BSS) and by extension Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) as defenses available to women on trial for taking violent action against an abusive partner. According to syndrome theorists, abuse victims are more likely than nonvictims to perceive fear of imminent harm. The current research tested the link between history of abuse and women's judgments of another woman accused of killing her abusive husband with a national online sample of women (N = 644). The study examined verdicts in proguilty versus proacquittal fact patterns in which the killer either shot her husband immediately after a confrontation or after a delay. The analysis treated self-defense elements (e.g., fear of imminent harm) and extralegal or psychological factors (e.g., likelihood to act similarly) as mediators. As expected, results showed the highest percent of acquittals in the proacquittal case with no delay; however, the experience of abuse moderated these effects. In the proguilt case, women who reported high levels of psychological or sexual abuse favored defendants more than women with moderate or low levels of abuse, but there was no evidence that these women did so because they interpret the self-defense criteria (e.g., perception of imminent harm) differently than women without abuse. There was evidence that women reached their judgments based upon their beliefs that they would have acted similarly to the defendant. These findings suggest that current self-defense doctrine may be inconsistent with judgments that abused and nonabused women make about culpability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)279-291
Number of pages13
JournalPsychology, Public Policy, and Law
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2018


  • Battered spouse syndrome
  • Domestic abuse
  • Imminent danger
  • Self-defense law

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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