Battered person syndrome

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Battered person syndrome


A 58-year-old man surnamed Mun threatened to kill his ex-wife, surnamed Jo, while putting a knife to her neck in June of last year. The incident took place only 10 days after she allowed her ex-husband to move back home.

Mun, who had habitually abused Jo verbally and physically during their 20 years of marriage, acted no differently that day. After insulting her with cruel words and beating her, he picked up the knife. After managing to get away, Jo picked up a pestle from the kitchen shelf.
“Be prepared to go to an orphanage,” Mun told his children, but he was interrupted when he slipped and fell to the floor. Jo lunged, hitting Mun’s head with the pestle several times, and strangled him to death with his own necktie.

Jo turned herself in to the police and was tried for murder.

What would have happened to Jo if she were living in the United States? The jury would have likely acquitted her.

Based on the theory of battered person syndrome, first presented by Dr. Lenore Walker in the late 1970s, U.S. courts have expanded the scope of self-defense since the mid-1980s. According to the theory, a victim of habitual violence often develops the idea that he or she can only escape from the violence by killing the offender.

The Seoul High Court ruled on April 22 that Jo must serve two years in jail. At the initial trial, all nine members of the jury found her guilty and did not accept her self-defense plea, arguing that Mun was no longer violent once he fell to the floor and that murder is not the only way to resolve domestic violence.

The appeals court, however, ruled a little differently.

Although it was not a valid self-defense case, the court ruled that she was unable to make a rational decision at the time due to battered person syndrome. The court accepted psychological experts’ opinions that years of severe domestic abuse made it impossible for her to make a rational decision while being subjected to violence.

Still, the court upheld the two-year sentence, explaining that her crime still merited punishment because she was responsible for the loss of a precious life.

Since the 1990s, many women’s rights advocates and academics have continuously argued that self-defense or an act of necessity must be recognized as valid defense when the victim of domestic violence murders a spouse. They make the case that such a crime must be viewed from the perspective of the victim.

In 2005, the first case of a sentence reduction based on battered person syndrome was made in Korea. But as we can see in Jo’s case, that doesn’t always happen.

The perspective of the nine jurors who convicted her is the reality, but we must expand our awareness of the psychological status of a domestic violence victim.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 27, Page 29

*The author is a reporter for the JoongAng Ilbo and a lawyer.

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