Robinson v. State

Decision Date03 June 1992
Docket NumberNo. 23642,23642
Citation417 S.E.2d 88,308 S.C. 74
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesBertha M. ROBINSON, Petitioner, v. STATE of South Carolina, Respondent.

Asst. Appellate Defender Robert M. Dudek, of South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, Columbia, for petitioner.

Atty. Gen. T. Travis Medlock, Chief Deputy Atty. Gen. Donald J. Zelenka, and Asst. Atty. Gen., Delbert H. Singleton, Jr., Columbia, for respondent.

HARWELL, Chief Justice:

We granted petitioner Bertha M. Robinson's petition for writ of certiorari to determine whether the post-conviction relief (PCR) judge erred in finding that trial counsel's performance was not deficient. Petitioner alleges that trial counsel did not properly present the battered woman's syndrome in an effort to establish her claim of self-defense. We affirm.


In the early morning hours of December 22, 1979, petitioner shot her husband behind his right ear with a .22 caliber pistol while he slept. A jury found petitioner guilty of murder, and she was sentenced to life in prison. Petitioner timely appealed her conviction, which was affirmed. 1

In 1989, petitioner applied for PCR. She alleged, among other things, that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to properly present the battered woman's syndrome to show that petitioner had acted in self-defense when she killed her husband. Petitioner's testimony reveals that she exhibited many of the characteristics of a battered woman. Trial counsel presented evidence of abuse in mitigation of petitioner's crime, but did not attempt to instruct the jury regarding the psychological effects of the battered woman's syndrome. The PCR judge found that trial counsel had performed within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal matters.


Petitioner asserts that trial counsel was ineffective in failing to properly utilize the battered woman's syndrome to establish that petitioner killed her husband in self-defense. We disagree.

A battered woman is a woman who repeatedly is subjected to any forceful physical or psychological behavior by a man in order to coerce her to do something he wants her to do without any concern for her rights. Commonwealth v. Stonehouse, 521 Pa. 41, 555 A.2d 772 (1989) (citing L. Walker, The Battered Woman xv (1979)). The battered woman's syndrome is identified by a series of common characteristics that appear in women who are abused for an extended period of time by the dominant male figure in their lives. State v. Kelly, 97 N.J. 178, 478 A.2d 364 (1984). These characteristics include fear, hyper-suggestibility, isolation, guilt, and emotional dependency, which culminate in a woman's belief that she should not and cannot escape her batterer. Stonehouse, 521 Pa. at 62 n. 6, 555 A.2d at 783 n. 6 (citing Comment, The Battered Spouse Syndrome as a Defense to a Homicide Charge Under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, 26 Vill.L.Rev. 105 (1980)). A battered woman believes that her batterer is capable of killing her. Ibn-Tamas v. United States, 407 A.2d 626 (D.C.1979).

The battered woman's syndrome results from the cyclical nature of the relationship between the battered woman and the man who abuses her. In the first phrase of the cycle, tension increases between the woman and her partner, and minor abuse occurs. In the second phase, the violence escalates and the battering takes place. In the third phase, which occurs after the battering, there may be a temporary lull in the physical abuse inflicted on the woman, at which time the woman forgives the batterer. State v. Allery, 101 Wash.2d 591, 682 P.2d 312 (1984). During the third phase, the batterer may feel contrite and loving, and may promise the woman that the violence will never happen again. As the relationship progresses, however, the tension building before battering becomes more common, and the batterer's feelings of loving contrition decline. L. Walker, The Battered Woman Syndrome 97 (1984).

A battered woman suffers from "learned helplessness" as the "repeated batterings, like electrical shocks, diminish the woman's motivation to respond." Id. at 7. This stems from the battered woman's belief that her batterer is more powerful than he actually is, and her fear of retaliation if she summons help. People v. Day, 2 Cal.App. 4th 405, 2 Cal.Rptr.2d 916 (1992). As a result, she ceases trying to escape even when the opportunity to do so is present. State v. Williams, 787 S.W.2d 308 (Mo.Ct.App.1990) (citing L. Walker, The Battered Woman 47 (1979)).

Having provided an abbreviated overview of the battered woman's syndrome, we turn to the issue before us: whether petitioner's trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present the battered woman's syndrome in the context of a claim of self-defense. To prove ineffective assistance of counsel, petitioner must show that her trial counsel's performance was not reasonable under prevailing professional norms. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). Further, petitioner must demonstrate that she was prejudiced by her trial counsel's deficient performance. Id. Our scope of review is limited to a determination of whether there is evidence of probative value in the record to support the PCR judge's findings. Cherry v. State, 300 S.C. 115, 386 S.E.2d 624 (1989).

This Court first recognized the battered woman's syndrome as relevant to a claim of self defense in State v. Hill, 287 S.C. 398, 339 S.E.2d 121 (1986), six years after petitioner's trial. We cannot say that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present evidence of a complex psychological phenomenon which had not yet been recognized by this Court, and which only recently had been identified by the scientific community. 2 Accordingly, we hold that the PCR judge did not err in finding that trial counsel's performance was within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal matters.

We have not previously addressed the relationship between the battered woman's syndrome and the law of self-defense as it is defined in South Carolina, and will do so now briefly in order to provide some guidance to members of the bench and bar. We find that the unique perceptions of a defendant suffering from battered woman's syndrome are generally compatible with the law of this State regarding self-defense.

Self-defense is comprised of four elements:

First, the defendant must be without fault in bringing on the difficulty. Second, the defendant must have actually believed he was in imminent danger of losing his life or sustaining serious bodily injury, or he actually was in such imminent danger. Third, if his defense is based upon his belief of imminent danger, a reasonably prudent [person] of ordinary firmness and courage would have entertained the same belief. If the defendant actually was in imminent danger, the circumstances were such as...

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22 cases
  • Primus v. Padula, C.A. No. 4:07-cv-02652-PMD-TER.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Carolina
    • May 27, 2008
    ...was ineffective where he failed to conduct a legal, factual or meritorious investigation of the applicant's case. Bertha Robinson v. State, 308 S.C. 74, 417 S.E.2d 88 (1992) Frederick Jetter v. State, S.C. OP. No. 1992 Cothill Tate v. State, S.C. OP. No. April 5. Trial counsel was ineffecti......
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    ...312 S.C. 278, 280, 440 S.E.2d 370, 372 (1994); State v. Hill, 315 S.C. 260, 262, 433 S.E.2d 848, 849 (1993); Robinson v. State, 308 S.C. 74, 79, 417 S.E.2d 88, 91 (1992); State v. Fuller, 297 S.C. 440, 442, 377 S.E.2d 328, 330 (1989); State v. Davis, 282 S.C. 45, 46, 317 S.E.2d 452, 453 (19......
  • Porter v. State
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • August 7, 2017
    ...terror of physical and mental abuse. Often the terror does not wane, even when the batterer is absent or asleep." Robinson v. State , 308 S.C. 74, 417 S.E.2d 88, 91 (1992) (citation omitted). The General Assembly signaled recognition of this fact by allowing expert testimony regarding batte......
  • Linn v. State
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court
    • June 14, 2019
    ...only the death of the batterer can provide relief may be reasonable in the mind of a person of ordinary firmness." Robinson v. State , 308 S.C. 74, 417 S.E.2d 88, 91 (1992).There are certain circumstances that tend to distinguish BWS victims who kill their batterer. "Frequently, a woman’s l......
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