Judy Norman shot her abusive husband during a late afternoon nap while he rested before violently trafficking her that night. The sharp contrast between the extreme violence and danger Judy faced and the denial of a self-defense instruction triggered extensive academic debates about justification and the use of deadly force. Norman became one of the most famous cases involving battered women, appearing in many casebooks and hundreds of law review articles. Despite all this work, the facts of the case contradict much of what scholars have said about Norman. Misconceptions about expert evidence, “Battered Woman Syndrome,” and battered women drive academic errors that affect evaluation of her need to act immediately, including the timing of sleep and death and the idea that her perceptions of risk were distorted. Almost all legal scholars failed to grapple with the looming threat of violent, forcible sexual slavery and therefore did not explore the larger question of whether that threat may justify deadly force in self-defense.
Battered woman syndrome and learned helplessness are terms of art. In law, the term “battered woman syndrome” became a generic umbrella for expert evidence whether or not the expert applied Lenore Walker’s original theory. For decades, social scientists have applied other frameworks to understanding the impact of battering, especially “survivor theory” and “coercive control.” From the mid-1990s, the term “intimate partner violence and its effects” replaced battered woman syndrome and learned helplessness, but syndrome terminology persisted in legal contexts, giving Walker’s theory disproportionate influence. Simplified concepts of the syndrome led some criminal law theorists to believe that critics of the Norman holding must be relying on expert testimony about passivity and helplessness to argue for change in the concepts of imminence and reasonableness. In fact, the forensic expert at Judy Norman’s trial had applied the “coercive control” framework that became more influential over time.
This Article analyzes facts and confronts doctrinal questions in light of current social science. Replacing battered woman syndrome with “intimate partner violence” and replacing learned helplessness with “. . . the effects of intimate partner violence,” we should reevaluate the literature on Norman and self-defense to identify the best arguments and address new questions.
Mahoney, Martha R., "Misunderstanding Judy Norman: Theory as Cause and Consequence" (2019). Connecticut Law Review. 422.