State v. Kelly

Citation97 N.J. 178,478 A.2d 364
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Gladys KELLY, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date24 July 1984
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

Sheri Woliver, Asst. Deputy Public Defender, for defendant-appellant (Joseph H. Rodriguez, Public Defender, attorney).

Hilary L. Brunell, Asst. Prosecutor, for plaintiff-respondent (George L. Schneider, Essex County Prosecutor, attorney).

Elizabeth M. Schneider, Newark, a member of the New York bar, for amici curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women (Frank Askin and Stephen M. Latimer, Newark, attorneys).

Nadine Taub, Newark, submitted a brief for amicus curiae American Psychological Ass'n (Nadine Taub, attorney; Kit Kinports and Bruce J. Ennis, Washington, D.C., members of the District of Columbia bar, and Donald N. Bersoff, Baltimore, Md., a member of the Maryland bar, of counsel).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

WILENTZ, C.J.

The central issue before us is whether expert testimony about the battered-woman's syndrome is admissible to help establish a claim of self-defense in a homicide case. The question is one of first impression in this state. We hold, based on the limited record before us (the State not having had a full opportunity to prove the contrary), that the battered-woman's syndrome is an appropriate subject for expert testimony; that the experts' conclusions, despite the relative newness of the field, are sufficiently reliable under New Jersey's standards for scientific testimony; and that defendant's expert was sufficiently qualified. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial. If on retrial after a full examination of these issues the evidence continues to support these conclusions, the expert's testimony on the battered-woman's syndrome shall be admitted as relevant to the honesty and reasonableness of defendant's belief that deadly force was necessary to protect her against death or serious bodily harm.

I.

On May 24, 1980, defendant, Gladys Kelly, stabbed her husband, Ernest, with a pair of scissors. He died shortly thereafter at a nearby hospital. The couple had been married for seven years, during which time Ernest had periodically attacked Gladys. According to Ms. Kelly, he assaulted her that afternoon, and she stabbed him in self-defense, fearing that he would kill her if she did not act.

Ms. Kelly was indicted for murder. At trial, she did not deny stabbing her husband, but asserted that her action was in self-defense. To establish the requisite state of mind for her self-defense claim, Ms. Kelly called Dr. Lois Veronen as an expert witness to testify about the battered-woman's syndrome. After hearing a lengthy voir dire examination of Dr. Veronen, the trial court ruled that expert testimony concerning the syndrome was inadmissible on the self-defense issue under State v. Bess, 53 N.J. 10, 247 A.2d 669 (1968). Apparently the court believed that the sole purpose of this testimony was to explain and justify defendant's perception of the danger rather than to show the objective reasonableness of that perception.

Ms. Kelly was convicted of reckless manslaughter. In an unreported decision relying in part on Bess, the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction. We granted certification, 91 N.J. 539, 453 A.2d 859 (1983), and now reverse.

Defendant raises six issues on appeal. She claims: (1) that the trial court erred in excluding expert testimony on the battered-woman's syndrome; (2) that the trial court's charge on provocation was erroneous; (3) that the trial court erred in excluding testimony that Mr. Kelly had sexually assaulted one of Ms. Kelly's daughters; (4) that improper prosecutorial conduct caused her to be denied a fair trial; (5) that the trial court erred in admitting testimony about her earlier conspiracy conviction; and (6) that her sentence was excessive.

II.

The Kellys had a stormy marriage. Some of the details of their relationship, especially the stabbing, are disputed. The following is Ms. Kelly's version of what happened--a version that the jury could have accepted and, if they had, a version that would make the proffered expert testimony not only relevant, but critical.

The day after the marriage, Mr. Kelly got drunk and knocked Ms. Kelly down. Although a period of calm followed the initial attack, the next seven years were accompanied by periodic and frequent beatings, sometimes as often as once a week. During the attacks, which generally occurred when Mr. Kelly was drunk, he threatened to kill Ms. Kelly and to cut off parts of her body if she tried to leave him. Mr. Kelly often moved out of the house after an attack, later returning with a promise that he would change his ways. Until the day of the homicide, only one of the attacks had taken place in public.

The day before the stabbing, Gladys and Ernest went shopping. They did not have enough money to buy food for the entire week, so Ernest said he would give his wife more money the next day.

The following morning he left for work. Ms. Kelly next saw her husband late that afternoon at a friend's house. She had gone there with her daughter, Annette, to ask Ernest for money to buy food. He told her to wait until they got home, and shortly thereafter the Kellys left. After walking past several houses, Mr. Kelly, who was drunk, angrily asked "What the hell did you come around here for?" He then grabbed the collar of her dress, and the two fell to the ground. He choked her by pushing his fingers against her throat, punched or hit her face, and bit her leg.

A crowd gathered on the street. Two men from the crowd separated them, just as Gladys felt that she was "passing out" from being choked. Fearing that Annette had been pushed around in the crowd, Gladys then left to look for her. Upon finding Annette, defendant noticed that Annette had defendant's pocketbook. Gladys had dropped it during the fight. Annette had retrieved it and gave her mother the pocketbook.

After finding her daughter, Ms. Kelly then observed Mr. Kelly running toward her with his hands raised. Within seconds he was right next to her. Unsure of whether he had armed himself while she was looking for their daughter, and thinking that he had come back to kill her, she grabbed a pair of scissors from her pocketbook. She tried to scare him away, but instead stabbed him. 1

III.

The central question in this case is whether the trial court erred in its exclusion of expert testimony on the battered-woman's syndrome. That testimony was intended to explain defendant's state of mind and bolster her claim of self-defense. We shall first examine the nature of the battered-woman's syndrome and then consider the expert testimony proffered in this case and its relevancy.

In the past decade social scientists and the legal community began to examine the forces that generate and perpetuate wife beating and violence in the family. 2 What has been revealed is that the problem affects many more people than had been thought and that the victims of the violence are not only the battered family members (almost always either the wife or the children). There are also many other strangers to the family who feel the devastating impact, often in the form of violence, of the psychological damage suffered by the victims.

Due to the high incidence of unreported abuse (the FBI and other law enforcement experts believe that wife abuse is the most unreported crime in the United States), estimates vary of the number of American women who are beaten regularly by their husband, boyfriend, or the dominant male figure in their lives. One recent estimate puts the number of women beaten yearly at over one million. See California Advisory Comm'n on Family Law, Domestic Violence app. F at 119 (1st report 1978). The state police statistics show more than 18,000 reported cases of domestic violence in New Jersey during the first nine months of 1983, in 83% of which the victim was female. It is clear that the American home, once assumed to be the cornerstone of our society, is often a violent place. 3

While common law notions that assigned an inferior status to women, and to wives in particular, no longer represent the state of the law as reflected in statutes and cases, many commentators assert that a bias against battered women still exists, institutionalized in the attitudes of law enforcement agencies unwilling to pursue or uninterested in pursuing wife beating cases. 4 See Comment, The Battered Wife's Dilemma: Kill or be Killed, 32 Hastings L.J., 895, 897-911 (1981).

Another problem is the currency enjoyed by stereotypes and myths concerning the characteristics of battered women and their reasons for staying in battering relationships. Some popular misconceptions about battered women include the beliefs that they are masochistic and actually enjoy their beatings, that they purposely provoke their husbands into violent behavior, and, most critically, as we shall soon see, that women who remain in battering relationships are free to leave their abusers at any time. See L. Walker, The Battered Woman at 19-31 (1979).

As these cases so tragically suggest, not only do many women suffer physical abuse at the hands of their mates, but a significant number of women kill (or are killed by) their husbands. In 1978, murders between husband and wife or girlfriend and boyfriend constituted 13% of all murders committed in the United States. Undoubtedly some of these arose from battering incidents. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 1978 (1978). Men were the victims in 48% of these killings. Id.

As the problem of battered women has begun to receive more attention, sociologists and psychologists have begun to focus on the effects a sustained pattern of physical and psychological abuse can have on a woman. The effects of such abuse are what some scientific observers have termed "the...

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  • Lay & Expert
    • United States
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    • May 5, 2019
    ...relationship, had never met them, and indicated she could form no opinion about defendant’s and victims’ relationship. State v. Kelly , 97 N.J. 178, 478 A.2d 364 (1984). Expert testimony on the battered woman syndrome is admissible in support of a claim of self-defense . NOTE: Kelly also he......
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    ...relationship, had never met them, and indicated she could form no opinion about defendant’s and victims’ relationship. State v. Kelly , 97 N.J. 178, 478 A.2d 364 (1984). Expert testimony on the battered woman syndrome is admissible in support of a claim of self-defense . NOTE: Kelly also he......
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    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Trial Evidence Foundations - 2018 Contents
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    ...relationship, had never met them, and indicated she could form no opinion about defendant’s and victims’ relationship. State v. Kelly , 97 N.J. 178, 478 A.2d 364 (1984). Expert testimony on the battered woman syndrome is admissible in support of a claim of self-defense . NOTE: Kelly also he......
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    ...relationship, had never met them, and indicated she could form no opinion about defendant’s and victims’ relationship. State v. Kelly , 97 N.J. 178, 478 A.2d 364 (1984). Expert testimony on the battered woman syndrome is admissible in support of a claim of self-defense . NOTE: Kelly also he......
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