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Porter v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

August 7, 2017


          Argued: May 9, 2017

         HOMICIDE - IMPERFECT SELF-DEFENSE - MD. CODE (1991, 2013 Repl. Vol.), § 10-916 OF THE COURTS AND JUDICIAL PROCEEDINGS ARTICLE ("CJP") - BATTERED SPOUSE SYNDROME: A criminal defendant accused of murdering her husband was entitled to a jury instruction on imperfect self-defense when she presented evidence that her husband physically abused her throughout their 24-year marriage, that his abuse had escalated in the weeks preceding his death, and that at the time of his killing she lived in a constant state of fear. Despite the fact that she hired a third-party to carry out the homicide, the defendant presented sufficient evidence that she actually believed she was in "imminent or immediate" danger to receive a jury instruction on imperfect self-defense. Accordingly, the trial court's misstatement of the elements of imperfect self-defense in its jury instruction did not constitute harmless error. We reverse the defendant's convictions and remand for a new trial.

         CONSPIRACY TO COMMIT MURDER - IMPERFECT SELF-DEFENSE: To convict the defendant of conspiracy to commit murder, the jury must find that she had a malicious intent to kill with premeditation and deliberation. Because imperfect self-defense negates the element of malice, the trial court's misstatement of the law in its imperfect self-defense instruction also infected the jury's verdict as to conspiracy to commit murder.

         SOLICITATION TO COMMIT MURDER - IMPERFECT SELF-DEFENSE: To be found guilty of solicitation to commit murder, the defendant must have induced a third-party to maliciously kill with premeditation and deliberation. If the jury finds that the defendant acted in imperfect self-defense, it should not find that she solicited another to kill maliciously. Rather, she solicited another to kill for her protection. Accordingly, the erroneous jury instruction as to imperfect self-defense also infected the defendant's solicitation convictions.

         Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case No.: 03-K-10-001690

          Barbera, C.J. Greene Adkins McDonald Watts Hotten Getty, JJ.


          Adkins, J.

         Battered spouse syndrome is a form of posttraumatic stress disorder that develops in victims of intimate partner violence. Maryland law allows a woman on trial for harming her abuser to present evidence explaining battered spouse syndrome and its psychological effects regardless of whether she was the first aggressor, used excessive force, or failed to retreat. Md. Code (1991, 2013 Repl. Vol.), § 10-916(b) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJP").[1] This case asks us to analyze how Maryland's battered spouse syndrome statute interacts with the elements of imperfect self-defense. It presents the question of whether a defendant who contracted with a third-party to kill her abusive husband can present sufficient evidence that she felt as though she was in imminent danger to be entitled to an imperfect self-defense jury instruction.


         Petitioner Karla Louise Porter met her husband, William Raymond Porter ("Ray"), in 1982. While they were dating, Ray began exhibiting controlling behaviors. He called Porter at work multiple times a day to make sure she was in her office. He told her that she should spend all of her time maintaining their household or helping him with various tasks. Porter stopped spending time with her friends because Ray "didn't allow it."

         After they were married in 1986, Ray began physically and verbally abusing Porter. At trial, Porter testified to numerous instances of violent abuse throughout their 24-year marriage, including that her husband had: beaten her with a belt; hit her with a wooden board; pushed her head into her mother's headstone and told her that she "should be with [her] dead mother"; stabbed a drill into her stomach, leaving a large scar; hit her with a rake; smeared dog excrement across her back; hit her with a toolbox; kicked her in the side; shoved her head into leaking sewage; and given her a black eye. She also testified that on multiple occasions he had: told her that she was "worthless" and "should die"; threatened to kill her; and forced her to drink water until she urinated on herself. Porter testified that she did not call the police or leave Ray after any of these instances of abuse because she was afraid he would retaliate. When asked why she did not move out of their home, she testified, "I knew he would follow me. I knew that there was no getting away."

         Porter testified that Ray's physical and verbal abuse escalated in the year preceding his death. During this time, Ray repeatedly expressed a desire to move to Florida. Porter testified, "I felt if I went he was going to kill me there in Florida. I had no family there, no children." She explained that on previous visits to Florida, Ray had threatened to feed her to the alligators. In early 2010, Ray picked up one of his handguns and began yelling about moving to Florida. He told Porter that he did not want to take their children or his parents with them when they moved. He pointed his gun at her head and said, "Maybe I am not even going to take you. I should just kill you now." At the end of February 2010, Ray hit Porter across the back with a crutch because he felt that she did not adequately sympathize with the fact that he was bored. Porter testified that in the weeks leading up to Ray's death she was "terrified almost on a daily basis." She explained that "things were getting so bad, things were just out of control. . . . It was just day-to-day-it wasn't even day-to-day. It was minute-to-minute. Always walking on eggshells."

         Beginning in mid-2009, Porter approached multiple people about killing her husband. That summer, she gave her daughter's boyfriend, Daniel Blackwell, $1, 000 to "take care of" her husband. The week before Christmas, she asked one of Ray's coworkers, Tony Fails, to kill him. When asked why she solicited Fails to kill Ray, Porter testified, "It was getting so bad that I knew that Ray was going to kill me and I just wanted to kill him first." Neither Blackwell nor Fails took any action against Ray. In January 2010, Porter asked an acquaintance, Paige Huemann, if she knew where she could get some potassium cyanide to poison Ray. Eventually, Porter's nephew, Seamus Coyle, put her in touch with Walter Bishop, who agreed to kill her husband in exchange for $400. As to her mental state on the day her husband was shot, Porter testified, "In my mind, I knew he was going to kill me at any point."

         On the morning of Ray's death, March 1, 2010, Porter told him that the alarm had gone off at the gas station that they owned. Ray went to the station, and around 6:30 a.m., Bishop came in and shot Ray twice. Immediately afterwards, Porter called 911 and told the police that the gas station had been robbed and that the thief had shot her husband. About a week later, Porter was arrested for her role in Porter's killing. She admitted to police that she had paid Bishop to "beat [ ] up" her husband. Porter was charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, three counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder, and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence.

         During the trial, Porter presented two expert witnesses to testify as to her mental state at the time of Ray's killing. Dr. Neal Blumberg, a forensic psychiatrist, testified that he met with Porter on five occasions while she was awaiting trial. He explained that he administered a variety of psychological tests and evaluations, and concluded to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Porter was suffering from major depressive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Dr. Blumberg testified that Porter "described the relationship with her husband as escalating in a very negative direction, " but that "her coping style was not to assert herself or go to the police." He testified, "Her response to that progressive abuse was to cover things over, to deny, to repress, to sort of avoid thinking about what was going on with the hopes that . . . things would settle down . . . ." Due in part to this response, which Dr. Blumberg referred to as "learned helplessness, " he concluded to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Porter was suffering from battered spouse syndrome as defined in CJP § 10-916.

         Dr. Mary Ann Dutton, a clinical psychologist, also testified for Porter. Dr. Dutton testified at length about the effects of chronic abuse on an individual's mental state, including describing common reasons women do not leave their abusers. She explained that victims of intimate partner violence often suffer from depression and hyperarousal, or "being on the lookout all the time." Dr. Dutton testified that battered woman syndrome can "augment" a woman's perception of the danger that she faces-it can make it seem more threatening. Battered women often utilize personal coping mechanisms, such as "trying to keep the peace, " Dr. Dutton explained, as opposed to public mechanisms, such as going to the police. She testified that she met with Porter twice and concluded to a reasonable degree of psychological certainty that Porter "experienced repeated abuse in the context of her marriage" and suffered from psychological effects as a result. Dr. Dutton also testified that she evaluated Porter's marriage using an instrument developed at Johns Hopkins University to identify relationships in which an abused spouse is in life-threatening danger. She explained that a number of the risk factors were present in the Porters' relationship, including escalation in the severity of the abuse, frequent use of alcohol, extensive jealousy, and death threats.

         Porter also presented lay witness testimony describing Ray's abuse. Porter's childhood friend, Ray Naimaster, testified that Porter was "standoffish" when he came across her and her husband while they were shopping. When Naimaster asked her about it later, Porter told him that Ray was jealous. Naimaster asked Porter if her husband was abusing her, and he testified that she "got small" and "[d]idn't say anything" in response. Porter's pastor, Johnny Brewer, testified that Porter told him that she was experiencing verbal abuse and that she stopped regularly attending church about two years before her husband's death. Gertrude Lorraine Briggs, the Porters' co-worker and occasional housekeeper, testified that she observed Ray "be rough" with Porter. She explained that he would "cut her down and she would start crying." Briggs testified that Ray's verbal abuse worsened "towards the end when [Porter] said she didn't want to go to Florida." When Briggs suggested to Porter that she leave her husband, Porter told her that Ray would find her.

         The Porters' daughter, Megan, also took the stand. She was 18 when her father was killed. She testified that her father often called her mother "a lazy bitch or a fat cunt" and told her "that she was worthless." Megan had seen bruises on her mother's arms and legs, and at one point Megan saw her with a black eye. From her basement bedroom, Megan often overheard yelling and "loud thump[s]" when her father was upset, but she never saw him hit her mother.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the State objected to any jury instruction as to self-defense, but then proposed an instruction on imperfect self-defense for the court to use if it decided Porter was entitled to one. The State explained that it added language to the pattern jury instruction on imperfect self-defense because the instruction did not include all of the required self-defense elements.[2] Porter objected to this change. She also requested that the jury be instructed to consider imperfect self-defense as applied to solicitation and conspiracy-not just murder.

         The court agreed that the pattern instruction on imperfect self-defense "could be misleading, " and read the State's proposed instruction:

If the Defendant actually believed that she was in immediate and imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm, even though a reasonable person would not have so believed, and the Defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend herself in light of the threatened or actual force, and that retreat from the threat was unsafe, and that she was not the aggressor, the Defendant's actual, though unreasonable belief, is a partial self-defense and the verdict should be guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

         As to Porter's request regarding solicitation and conspiracy, the court found that imperfect self-defense could apply to those crimes. To address this, it told the jury, "Self-defense is a complete defense to the crimes charged in this case." (Emphasis added.) The court also instructed the jury, "In assessing the Defendant's claims of self-defense in this case, you may, but are not required to, consider why and how in light of any pattern of abuse that you find existed, the Defendant may have honestly and perhaps reasonably perceived an imminent threat of immediate danger."

         During deliberations, the jury submitted a number of questions to the court, including: (1) "Can we see the language of the battered spouse syndrome statute?"; (2) "Clarify definitions of imminent and immediate"; (3) "Do we need all the elements of a crime to be met?"; and (4) "Does mitigating circumstances have to meet all elements of self-defense or partial self-defense to apply?" The court declined to provide the language of the battered spouse syndrome statute and instructed the jurors to give the words "imminent" and "immediate" "their common and ordinary meaning." The court also reiterated that the "State must prove each of the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt." As to self-defense, it explained that "in order to convict the Defendant of murder, the State must prove that self-defense does not apply in this case. This means that you are required to find the Defendant not guilty unless the State has persuaded you beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one of the four factors of complete self-defense was absent." In response to the last question, the court re-read its original imperfect self-defense instruction.

         The jury found Porter guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, three counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder, and use of a handgun in commission of a crime of violence. She was sentenced to life plus 40 years in prison. Porter filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the jury was not properly instructed "as to the definition of battered spouse syndrome and how to consider this type of evidence in the context of imperfect self[-]defense." The court denied the motion, and

         Porter appealed.[3]

         The Court of Special Appeals held that Porter had not presented sufficient evidence to be entitled to an imperfect self-defense instruction, and thus any error in delivering such an instruction was harmless. Porter v. State, 230 Md.App. 288, 327-28 (2016). The intermediate appellate court explained, "There was certainly evidence from which the jury could have found that [ ] Porter had felt herself in imminent danger of death on occasions in the weeks and months before [Ray's] death, but there was no evidence that she had such a belief on the morning of the murder." Id. at 327. Thus, the court reasoned, "Porter never [ ] should have received an instruction on self-defense, and cannot now complain that the court's instruction was improper." Id. Porter appealed.

         We granted certiorari to answer the following question:[4]

Does the trial court's erroneous instruction on imperfect self-defense constitute harmless error?

         Because we answer no to this question, we reverse the decision of the Court of Special Appeals and remand for a new trial.


         Porter argues that the trial court's misstatement of the law in its imperfect self-defense jury instruction constitutes reversible error-it was not harmless. "Harmless error review is the standard of review most favorable to the defendant short of an automatic reversal." Bellamy v. State, 403 Md. 308, 333 (2008). When we have determined that the trial court erred in a criminal case, "reversal is required unless the error did not influence the verdict." Id. at 332 (citation omitted). "To say that an error did not contribute to the verdict is . . . to find that error unimportant in relation to everything else the jury considered on the issue in question, as revealed by the record." Id. (citation omitted). In other words, reversal is required unless we find that the error was harmless. We have explained that an "error is harmless only if it did not play any role in the jury's verdict." Id. (emphasis added) (citation omitted). The State carries the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the error meets this high standard. Dionas v. State, 436 Md. 97, 108 (2013) (citation omitted).


         This case requires us to analyze the relationship between the elements of imperfect self-defense and Maryland's battered spouse syndrome statute to determine: (1) whether Porter was entitled to an instruction as to imperfect self-defense; and (2) if so, whether the misstatement of law within the instruction constitutes reversible error. We begin with the background of these legal concepts.

         The Elements of Self-Defense

         In Maryland, we recognize two forms of self-defense: perfect and imperfect. Perfect self-defense requires the following elements:

(1) The accused must have had reasonable grounds to believe himself in apparent imminent or immediate danger of death or serious bodily harm from his assailant or potential assailant;
(2) The accused must have in fact believed himself in this danger;
(3) The accused claiming the right of self-defense must not have been the aggressor or provoked the conflict; and
(4) The force used must have not been unreasonable and excessive, that is, the force must not have been more force than the exigency demanded.

State v. Smullen, 380 Md. 233, 252 (2004) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted). To have acted in perfect self-defense, the defendant must have both actually and reasonably believed that he was in imminent or immediate danger at the time he took defensive action. He is also required to have used a reasonable amount of force against his attacker. Additionally, when a defendant uses defensive, deadly force outside of his home, he has a duty "to retreat or avoid danger if such means were within his power and consistent with his safety." Burch v. State, 346 Md. 253, 283 (1997) (citation omitted). Perfect self-defense is a complete defense to murder, and thus, "if credited by the trier of fact, results in an acquittal." Smullen, 380 Md. at 251.

         Imperfect self-defense, on the other hand, does not require the defendant to demonstrate that he had reasonable grounds to believe that he was in imminent danger. Rather, he must only show that he actually believed that he was in danger, even if that belief was unreasonable. Smullen, 380 Md. at 252 (quoting State v. Marr, 362 Md. 467, 473 (2001)). Additionally, to assert imperfect self-defense, the defendant is not required to show that he used a reasonable amount of force against his attacker-only that he actually believed the amount of force used was necessary. Id. Lastly, to have acted in imperfect self-defense, a defendant must have only "subjectively believe[d] that retreat was not safe"-that belief need not be reasonable. Burch, 346 Md. at 284. In State v. Faulkner, 301 Md. 482 (1984), we explained the legal theory supporting the imperfect self-defense doctrine. We reasoned that a defendant's actual, though unreasonable, belief that he is in imminent danger "negates the presence of malice, a prerequisite to a finding of murder." Id. at 500-01. But, we continued, "the defendant is nevertheless to blame for the homicide and should not be rewarded for his unreasonable conduct." Id.

         In sum, when a defendant accused of murder presents evidence of self-defense, a proper instruction enables the jury to reach one of three verdicts: (1) guilty of murder, if the jury concludes that "the defendant did not have a subjective belief that the use of deadly force was necessary;" (2) not guilty, if the jury concludes "that the defendant had a reasonable subjective belief;" and (3) guilty of voluntary manslaughter, if the jury concludes "that the defendant honestly believed that the use of force was necessary but that this subjective belief was unreasonable under the circumstances." Id. To prove that the defendant is guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, the State carries the burden of showing that he did not act in perfect or imperfect self-defense. Dykes v. State, 319 Md. 206, 217 (1990).

         Battered Spouse Syndrome

         Just under one in four women in the United States will experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner during their lifetimes. Nat'l Ctr. for Injury Prevention & Control, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report 2 (2011), [ W76G-BE3G]. The vast majority of intimate partner violence-82 percent-is committed against women. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dep't of Justice, NCJ 244697, Nonfatal Domestic Violence, 2003-2012, at 6 (2014), pdf/ndv0312.pdf []. Out of all female homicide victims, about 40 percent are killed by an intimate partner. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dep't of Justice, NCJ 236018, Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008, at 18 (2011), [].

         The psychological impact of repeated intimate partner violence is referred to as battered spouse syndrome. Lenore E.A. Walker, Battered Women Syndrome and Self-Defense, 6 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol'y 321, 327 (1992). Battered spouse syndrome was first recognized by Dr. Lenore Walker, an academic and clinical psychologist. See Lenore E. Walker, The Battered Woman (1979); Lenore E. Walker, The Battered Woman Syndrome (1984). She has explained that the syndrome is a form of posttraumatic stress disorder, and, accordingly, women in abusive relationships "respond to the repeated abuse in a manner similar to others who have been repeatedly exposed to different kinds of trauma." Walker, Self-Defense, supra, at 326. They often experience cognitive confusion, high anxiety, and depression. Id. at 327-28.

         Battered spouse syndrome is characterized by two main phenomena: a cycle of intimate partner violence and the development of "learned helplessness." Id. at 330. In her study of abusive relationships, Dr. Walker discovered three phases in the "cycle of violence": (1) "the period of tension-building"; (2) "the acute battering incident"; and (3) "the period of loving-contrition or absence of tension." Id. (emphasis omitted). She explained that in cases where the abuse "has reached dangerous proportions, " the third phase "is not readily visible, and although there is some lessening of the tension, the woman never feels out of danger." Id. The second phenomena, learned helplessness, occurs when "the victim learns that when she attempts to defend herself-by reaching out to others or trying to leave-that she will be the victim of more severe violence." Smullen, 380 Md. at 254 (quoting Erin Masson, Admissibility of Expert or Opinion Evidence of Battered-Woman Syndrome on Issue of Self-Defense, 58 A.L.R. 5th 749, 762-63 (1998)). In response, she determines "that the most effective short-term method of reducing incidents of violence is to be more subservient." Id.

         When a woman uses physical force to defend against her abuser, expert witness testimony explaining the effects of battered spouse syndrome can be crucial to a successful self-defense claim. In Smullen, the Court explained why such testimony is relevant to an assertion of self-defense. This testimony "offers an explanation of why the defendant, having been previously subjected to abuse, simply did not leave the home or take some other action against her abuser." Id. at 254-55. It also helps explain to the jury "why, though apparently the aggressor, the defendant was actually responding to a perceived aggression by the victim." Id. at 271 (emphasis in original). In an abusive relationship, we explained, "the victim becomes able to sense the escalation in the frequency and intensity of the violence and thus becomes more sensitive to the abuser's behavior." Id. at 255. Thus, we continued, she "is in a position to know, perhaps with greater certainty than someone attacked by a stranger, that the batterer's threat is real and will be acted upon." Id. (citation omitted). She is able to "recognize a threat of imminent danger from conduct that would not appear imminently threatening to someone who had not been subjected to that repetitive cycle of violence." Id. at 270-71.

         In 1991, the General Assembly enacted a statute defining battered spouse syndrome as "the psychological condition of a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse by a spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, or former cohabitant." CJP § 10-916(a)(2); 1991 Md. Laws ch. 337. The statute allows a defendant who suffered from battered spouse syndrome at the time of the offense to offer evidence of the abuse and expert testimony on the syndrome "[n]otwithstanding evidence that the defendant was the first aggressor, used excessive force, or failed to retreat at the time of the alleged offense." Id. ยง 10-916(b). According to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Floor Report, the intent of the statute was to "clarify that the court has discretion to admit evidence of repeated physical and ...

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