The Court of Appeals of Maryland held that, in the event a defendant raises the issue of Battered Spouse Syndrome (“BSS”), a court abuses its discretion if it instructs a jury to make a predicate finding of abuse by the victim before considering all other evidence that the defendant suffered from BSS.  State v. Elzey, 472 Md. 84, 128-29, 244 A.3d 1068, 1094 (2021).  The court found that such an error oversteps into the jury’s role as the trier of fact by emphasizing the importance of certain evidence over other evidence.  Id. at 121, 128, 244 A.3d at 1090, 1094.  

On May 21, 2017, Latoya Elzey (“Elzey”) and her boyfriend, Migail Hunter (“Hunter”), began arguing while they were living in the apartment of their friend, Shatoria Hope (“Hope”).  After warning Hunter not to touch her, Elzey obtained a knife and returned to the argument.  Hope observed Hunter goading Elzey to stab him, and after hearing a loud noise, found Hunter on the floor, having been stabbed. He died minutes later.

At trial, Elzey testified about the abuse Hunter and past partners inflicted on her, relying on the expert testimony of a psychiatrist to affirm that she suffered from BSS at the time of the argument.  The Circuit Court for Wicomico County gave the jury an instruction based on The Maryland Criminal Pattern Jury Instructions that conditioned the jury’s finding of whether Elzey suffered from BSS on an initial finding that Hunter repeatedly abused Elzey.After Elzey’s counsel objected, the court held that BSS does not apply unless the decedent repeatedly abused the defendant.  The jury subsequently convicted Elzey of voluntary manslaughter.

Elzey appealed to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, arguing that the trial court erred by requiring the jury to make a finding of repeated abuse by Hunter before it considering all other BSS evidence, and because the instruction confused the jury as to the relevance of the abuse by past partners.  The Court of Special Appeals entered judgement in Elzey’s favor and ordered a new trial.  The Court of Appeals of Maryland granted the State’s petition for certiorari, agreeing to answer whether the Court of Special Appeals erred in holding that a court may not instruct a jury to first find that the defendant suffered from BSS and experienced abused from the decedent before considering expert testimony.  

The Court of Appeals of Maryland began its analysis with the Battered Spouse Syndrome statute (“the statute”), which permits a court to admit relevant evidence in a self-defense claim to explain the defendant’s state of mind during the crime.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 108-109, 244 A.3d at 1082-83 (citingMd. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-916(a) (2018)).  A battered spouse suffers from consistent traumatic abuse, develops heightened sensitivity to potential signs of violence, and thus requires evidence to explain said sensitivity.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 110, 244 A.3d at 1083.

To examine the admission of evidence of abuse by previous partners other than the decedent, the court referred to a medical report that concluded that a battered spouse’s heightened response to threats develops from the aggregate effects of their traumatic history.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 113, 244 A.3d at 1085 (citing Wallace-Bey v. State, 234 Md. App. 501, 550 (2017)).  A battered spouse’s actions cannot be properly explained without the context of past abuse; therefore, evidence of abuse by prior partners is admissible through its relevance to BSS.  Id.  Furthermore, the Court of Appeals’ analysis of the statute determined that the only prerequisite to admitting BSS evidence, with which Elzey complied, is that the defendant raise BSS as an issue.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 117, 244 A.3d at 1087 (citing Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-916(b)).

Though the trial court properly admitted evidence according to the theory of relevance, by requiring the jury to first find evidence of repeated abuse by only Hunter, the trial court created an unnecessary and problematic task for jury to complete before it could consider expert medical testimony.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 118, 244 A.3d at 1088.  An instruction withholding evidence, such as expert testimony, from the jury is erroneous.  Id. at 119, 244 A.3d at 1089 (citing Singleton v. Roman, 195 Md. 241, 247 (1950)).  The Court of Appeals determined that without evidence of past abuse, the jury could not properly assess if Elzey suffered from BSS.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 120, 244 A.3d at 1089This, in turn, impeded the jury’s assessment of Elzey’s self-defense claim.  Id. at 112, 244 A.3d at 1084 (citing State v. Peterson, 158 Md. App. 558, 597 (2004)).

Moreover, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the instruction may have confused jurors by imposing disproportional significance on evidence of Hunter’s abuse.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 122-25, 244 A.3d at 1091-92.  The trial court first required the jury to consider Hunter’s abuse out of the context of BSS, and should the jury have found that Hunter repeatedly abused Elzey, only then could it consider the abuse a second time in the context of BSS.  Id. at 121, 244 A.3d at 1090.  By inviting the jury to superfluously consider Hunter’s abuse of Elzey twice, the trial court emphasized evidence of Hunter’s abuse over that of others and encroached into the jury’s duty to weigh the significance of presented evidence.  Id. at 128-29, 244 A.3d at 1094.

The Court of Appeals concluded that this error was not harmless; if the jury had considered the psychiatrist’s testimony, it may have found that Elzey’s altered perception led her to honestly and reasonably consider Hunter a threat.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 127-28, 244 A.3d at 1093-94.  Thus, the jury could have found that she acted in perfect self-defense, mitigating Elzey’s voluntary manslaughter charge.  Id.  The Court of Appeals therefore held that the trial court abused its discretion in giving the jury an ambiguous and misleading instruction.  Id. at 107, 244 A.3d at 1082 (citing Thomas v. State, 413 Md. 247, 257 (2010)).

In a concurring opinion, Judge McDonald joined by dissecting the language and history of the statute to conclude that the trial court did not err in its instruction.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 131-32, 244 A.3d at 1095-96. In analyzing the statute’s language, Judge McDonald found that the language permits a court to admit BSS evidence given evidence of past abuse of the defendant by the decedent.  Id. at 130, 244 A.3d at 1095.

Additionally, Judge McDonald noted that both statute and case law discuss the admission of BSS evidence, which the trial court did correctly, but neither provide instructions concerning how to interpret said evidence.  Elzey, 472 Md. at 129-31, 244 A.3d at 1095-1096.  In claims of self-defense, the only relevant threat is that from the decedent; therefore, a jury can consider BSS in light of self-defense only when the defendant experienced abuse directly from the decedent.  Id.  While acknowledging that the trial court abused its discretion by requiring the jury to superfluously reconsider Hunter’s abuse twice, Judge McDonald contended that the trial court nonetheless correctly modified an existing instruction to suit Elzey’s self-defense claim Id. at 131-32, 244 A.3d at 1096.  Judge McDonald concluded that in cases where the decedent did not abuse the defendant, evidence of BSS would be appropriately admitted under a claim of no criminal responsibility.  Id. at 132, 244 A.3d at 1096.

By issuing this opinion, the Court of Appeals reiterated the jury’s duty to weigh the presented evidence and come to an informed conclusion.  By implying that certain evidence holds more significance than other evidence through its instruction, the court infringes onto that duty.  This holding clarified for future courts that superfluous and confusing instructions harm the defendant, and instructions on how to consider evidence overstep the courts’ boundaries.  This opinion will enable defendants asserting BSS in a self-defense claim to present expert testimony and evidence of their mental state even if the decedent never abused the defendant.  Broadly, this decision also encourages courts to be more aware of the biases their instructions may inflict on juries and craft instructions with greater care toward upholding the jury’s fact-finding role. In other defenses, this decision reminds courts not to bar relevant evidence from the jury by instructing it to first make findings from other evidence.

Olga Petrovskikh

Olga Petrovskikh is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a Staff Editor for Law Forum.  She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Sciences and a Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2020. She was also a National Moot Court competitor. Currently, she is a law clerk at Seledee Law Group and will graduate in 2023.

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