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Elzey v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

November 22, 2019

LATOYA BONTE ELZEY
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Circuit Court for Wicomico County Case No. C22-CR17-000393

          Arthur, Friedman, Raker, Irma S. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          Raker, J.

         Appellant Latoya Bonte Elzey was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County of voluntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment. Appellant presents the following questions for our review, which we have re-ordered as follows:

1. Did the trial court err in instructing the jury that, in order to consider expert testimony on Battered Spouse Syndrome, it first had to make a finding that Ms. Elzey "was a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse by the victim"?
2. Did the trial court err in instructing the jury that Battered Spouse Syndrome is caused by "repeated physical and psychological abuse by [the] victim," which in effect precluded the jury from considering expert evidence as to whether Ms. Elzey suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome as a result of abuse in prior relationships?
3. Did the trial court abuse its discretion by entering into evidence a prejudicial photograph when other photographs more clearly depicted the relevant information and did not contain the prejudicial depictions?
4. Did the trial court err in refusing to excuse a juror who expressed an "ethical dilemma" with disregarding information that was not in evidence?
5. Could any of the above-described errors, either individually or cumulatively, have influenced the jury verdict?

         We shall hold that the trial court's Battered Spouse Syndrome instruction was erroneous and unclear. Accordingly, we shall reverse and remand for a new trial.[1]

         I.

         Appellant was indicted by the Grand Jury for the Circuit Court for Wicomico County on charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, first-degree assault, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment. The jury convicted her of voluntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment. The court merged the second-degree assault and reckless endangerment convictions into the voluntary manslaughter conviction for sentencing purposes and sentenced appellant to a term of incarceration of ten years for voluntary manslaughter.

         On May 22, 2017, appellant and her boyfriend, Migail Hunter, were fighting in the living room of a friend's home where they were staying temporarily. As the fight continued, appellant told Mr. Hunter "don't put your hands on me" and "I'm tired of you putting your f****** hands on me," went to the kitchen, and grabbed a knife. The friend, however, dissuaded appellant from taking the knife back to the living room. As the fight escalated, appellant went back to the kitchen and returned with a knife. She told Mr. Hunter to stay away from her and that she did not want to use the knife. Undeterred, Mr. Hunter continued to approach her. Appellant testified that she held the knife loosely in front of her and turned her head away from Mr. Hunter, at which point he "lunged forward and stabbed himself in the chest" or walked into the knife. Although the wound was just one inch long, one-sixteenth of an inch wide, and two inches deep, it punctured Mr. Hunter's aorta. He died shortly thereafter.

         The central issue at trial was whether appellant acted in self-defense. Appellant's position was that she acted reasonably under the circumstances as she experienced them because she suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome, sometimes referred to as Battered Woman's Syndrome.[2] Appellant's medical psychiatric expert Dr. Neil Blumberg testified, inter alia, that he found, based on the totality of appellant's past abusive relationships, that appellant suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome. Dr. Blumberg noted that appellant's relationship with Mr. Hunter was merely the latest in her long history of abuse.

         Defense counsel submitted a proposed jury instruction on Battered Spouse Syndrome that read as follows:

"If you find, based on the testimony presented, that the defendant suffered from Battered Woman's Syndrome, you may consider how the effects of this condition may have altered the defendant's mental state. Specifically, you may consider this evidence in deciding whether the defendant actually believed that she needed to defend herself against an imminent threat and whether that belief was reasonable based on all the facts and circumstances as they have been made known to you by the evidence and the testimony in this case.
You may consider whether the presence of Battered Woman's Syndrome altered the defendant's perceptions and beliefs, including her perceptions and beliefs about the danger of the threat posed to her and that the danger was imminent.
You must determine the reasonableness of the defendant's belief and actions based on those beliefs in light of the circumstances as they appeared to the defendant at the time of the killing, and as they are evaluated by you now. Reasonableness is based both on the defendant's beliefs and on your evaluation as to their reasonableness.
If the defendant presents credible evidence of self-defense, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. If you have a reasonable doubt as to whether or not the defendant acted in self-defense, your verdict must be not guilty."

         Instead, the court instructed the jury[3] using the instruction on "Self-Defense: Battered Woman Syndrome" in § 8.13(G) of David E. Aaronson, Maryland Criminal Jury Instructions and Commentary (2014-2015 ed. 2015) as follows:

"Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard evidence that the Defendant was a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse. You have also heard from an expert witness that a person who is a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse by a victim may suffer from a psychological condition called Battered Spouse Syndrome. You have also heard expert testimony that the Defendant exhibits the characteristics consistent with Battered Spouse Syndrome. You must determine, based upon a consideration of all the evidence, whether the Defendant was a victim of repeated physical and psychological abuse by the victim, and if so whether she suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome.
If you determine that the Defendant suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome then you should consider this evidence for the purpose of explaining the Defendant's motive or state of mind, or both, and her beliefs and perceptions at the time of the commission of the alleged offense in order to determine whether the requirements of self-defense exist. Specifically you may consider this evidence in determining: one, whether the Defendant actually believed in the necessity to use deadly force to defend herself against imminent or immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death; two, the reasonableness of the Defendant's belief that she was in imminent or immediate danger of serious physical harm or death. In assessing reasonableness the issue is whether a reasonable person in the Defendant's circumstances would have perceived or seen a threat of serious physical harm or death. Three, the reasonableness of the force used by the Defendant in response to the perceived threat; and four, in evaluating the believability or credibility of the Defendant's testimony.
Evidence of Battered Spouse Syndrome is not in itself a defense to the crime of murder in the first and second degree, assault in the first and second degree and reckless endangerment. It has been admitted to assist you in determining whether the ...

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