COLUMBIA — Sandra Plunkett shot her husband in the back of the head two years ago while he reclined in their living room on a hospital bed, recovering from surgery. Now, to avoid the death sentence or life in prison, she must convince a jury it was an act of self-defense.
In her trial for first-degree murder, her public defender will argue she was suffering from "battered spouse syndrome."
Also known as "battered woman syndrome," the condition is defined as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder among people who can’t escape from abusive relationships, said psychologist Lenore Walker, who coined the term in the '70s.
Many defendants have used the syndrome as part of a self-defense argument. They say that long-term abuse caused them to believe they were in life-threatening danger, even though most outsiders wouldn't consider their situation that way.
Getting a jury to believe that Plunkett, 39, was more victim than aggressor may not be easy. Research suggests that using the battered spouse syndrome in a trial can lessen the perception of a defendant's guilt but can also be seen as an excuse.
Brenda Russell, an associate professor of applied psychology at Penn State Berks, has spent years studying jury decisions in battered spouse syndrome cases. She said that a defendant arguing self-defense might win acquittal, but only if the context for the incident was clearly dangerous and confrontational.
“More often, what the syndrome tends to do is to mitigate, or lessen, the offense to a lower offense,” she said.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va., said he handled several of these cases during his 16 years as a prosecutor.
“I would say it was effective at least half of the time in mitigating the severity of the offense, or leading to a plea agreement,” Burns said. He said none of the cases he saw resulted in a full acquittal.
Under Missouri law, force against another person is justified only when the actor “reasonably believes such force to be necessary” to defend against “what he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful force by such other person.”
Plunkett’s public defender, Justin Carver, did not return calls seeking an interview. But he will call an expert witness to support her claim of battered spouse syndrome, according to court records.
Whether Plunkett was abused — and the extent of the abuse — won’t be known until evidence and testimony are presented at her trial. But Holts Summit Assistant Police Chief Bryan Reid said there was no history of domestic disturbance at the couple's home there.
Jurors will also hear testimony about Plunkett's actions on New Year’s Day 2011. Plunkett first told investigators a story about an armed intruder, but she later admitted to shooting her husband, former Jefferson City police officer Paul Plunkett, 52.
After her confession, Plunkett tried to grab an officer’s gun, said Bryan Reid, assistant chief of the Holts Summit Police Department.
“She did it twice,” he said, once while leaving police headquarters and once in the car as she was being taken to jail.
Walker, who is not involved in Plunkett’s case but testifies in cases like hers, said expert witnesses usually try to help juries understand the abnormal situations experienced by battered defendants.
A jury, Walker said, would compare Plunkett’s actions to what they consider to be a reasonable woman’s reaction. Instead, they need to compare it to a battered woman’s reaction.
"That's what we really have to measure," Walker said.
Debate over legal defense
The use of battered spouse syndrome as a legal defense has been controversial for years.
Russell agrees that juries should consider “the effects of battering” on a defendant, but doesn’t believe there is a psychological syndrome at all.
“I hate that people call it" a syndrome, she said, noting that it is not listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s manual of mental disorders.
A second source of controversy, Russell said, is whether the research basis for the syndrome, done mostly in the '70s, is good enough for legal arguments today.
Walker performed a lot of that research and pioneered the use of the syndrome in court cases. She claims it is indeed a mental disorder, albeit one not easily recognized.
“It is a psychological syndrome, which is simply a collection of signs and symptoms" with a common core of PTSD, she said. "Unfortunately, most psychologists are not well-trained in measuring battered woman syndrome.”
Furthermore, she said, juries and legal personnel often confuse the unhealthy dynamics of abusive relationships with the actual mental disorder.
A third source of controversy is the syndrome's tendency to perpetuate stereotypes. If a woman doesn't come across on the witness stand as passive, Russell said, a jury might treat her more harshly.
"It does perpetuate that the female is the victim," she said.
Even the syndrome’s name has been a source of debate. Neither Russell nor Walker knew of a case where a man had defended himself using battered spouse syndrome. Walker said that “battered woman syndrome” is the only correct term.
“We don’t have enough data on men for abuse," Walker said.
Russell agreed, but said it is only a matter of time. She prefers the term “battered person syndrome.”
Plunkett will undergo a court-ordered mental evaluation because of her use of the syndrome as a defense.
“If a person indicates that they’re going to use that as a defense in the trial, they have to file notice of that,” Callaway County prosecutor Chris Wilson said. He filed a request for the evaluation in response to her notice.
Russell said the purpose of such an examination would most likely be to identify mitigating factors, such as mental instability on Plunkett’s part.
A trial date in Callaway County will be set once a psychologist has been selected to perform the evaluation. Meanwhile, Plunkett awaits trial in a Callaway County jail cell.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.