Male Use of Battered Person Syndrome Back in the News

by J. DeVoy
January 20, 2011

Muzzammil “Mo” Hassan co-founded Bridges TV with his wife, Aaslya, to counter negative stereotypes about Muslims across the world in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks perpetrated on the United States. They lived in an idyllic suburb of Buffalo, New York where there had not been a single recorded murder since 1986. On February 12, 2009, Mo Hassan allegedly beheaded his wife following their decision to divorce.

This week, on his fourth attorney and forced to proceed, Hassan’s trial is underway in Buffalo. Hassan’s attorney will seek to use the Battered Person Syndrome (formerly Battered Women Syndrome) defense in order to justify Hassan’s actions and obtain acquittal for his client. Whether this will be possible, however, remains to be seen.

While not always a reliable source of information, the Wikipedia entry for Battered Person Syndrome (BPS) is reasonably accurate:

Battered person syndrome is derived from psychologist Lenore Walker’s Battered Woman Syndrome [aka BWS], a theory she came up with in the late 1970s to explain domestic violence. A theory of multiple victimization, BWS used the “cycle of violence” and learned helplessness to explain the development of a psychological problem in women who are repeatedly abused by their husbands.

BWS later entered the legal realm when Walker began giving expert testimony about BWS at trials of women accused of killing their abuser. Although her intention was to show that the woman’s actions may have been justifiable, the only way that translated in the courtroom was as an argument of self-defense.

The admissibility of BPS is subject to jurisdictional wrinkles around the country. The upshot, which may vary from state to state, is that such evidence is admissible if it is in relation to a claim of self-defense. BPS is not a defense in and of itself, but contributes to an existing self-defense explanation for an accused murderer’s actions.

Oddly enough, Hassan claims to have such a defense in this case, and accuses his deceased wife of brandishing a knife against him shortly before her death. In some states, simply pulling a knife on someone at an undetermined point before a defensive killing isn’t enough to constitute self-defense and defeat a murder charge. But, it may be the gateway for Hassan to introduce evidence that he suffered from BPS.

BPS evaluates psychological characteristics, and in that respect should apply to psychological and physical abuse. Though there is an obvious disparity in the conduct of physical and psychological abuse, the psychological consequences may be identical, or similarly expressed. While men and women may process such harm differently, the U.S. Constitution would almost certainly not allow such a defense to be available to only women, as it does not rely on an immutable gender trait (i.e. a woman’s unique ability to conceive children). While physical abuse may leave visible scars, why wouldn’t years of henpecking, berating, economic ransom through threatened divorce, and other verbal abuse leave similar – if not identical – mental damage?

It may be unmasculine to whine about a spouse’s never-ending harassment and admit that it psychologically damaged him. But when one’s liberty is on the line, should masculinity and the societal pressure to “man up” preclude a man from using a potentially exonerating defense? Hell no.

Just as it is easy to see why a man can suffer the same psychological abuse as a woman within a relationship, even if effected through different instrumentalities, why is it so hard to believe that Hassan’s wife may have threatened to kill him – even repeatedly?

Donn Esmonde, a mangina one-track columnist for the Buffalo News who probably wouldn’t last a week writing for a paper in a real city, excoriated Hassan’s potential defense:

Having admitted the killing hours afterward, there was—in way of defense —not much Hassan could do but claim he was the abused, not the abuser. Hassan’s defense—voiced Tuesday by Schwartz—is the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, the courtroom version of buying a lottery ticket: It was he—not she—who feared being killed. According to Mo Hassan, she even pulled a knife on him during a private meeting earlier on the day of her death.

Yes, how implausible! Tiger Woods’ ex certainly didn’t batter him with a golf club. Brittney Spears didn’t attack an SUV with an umbrella in a bald rage, either. I’m sure Lorena Bobbit used her bare hands! Women who have disclosed their violent acts to me have always acted with some kind of instrumentality, whether keys, bottles, pans or other kitchen items. In my stupider middle school days, I knew that arguing with the wrong boy would escalate to, at worst, a punch to the mouth. Based on observations in life and the media, it is not hard to say there’s a definite trend of women using weapons, and virtually anything but their hands, to cause harm to others.

This isn’t to say I would want Hassan’s case. The facts are very much against him, and he may well have done it. But to presume him guilty and a cold-blooded killer because he allegedly murdered his wife ignores the half of the story which we have not yet heard. Like a false claim of rape, the functional reality of any crime a man is charged of committing against a woman turns the public’s presumption to one of guilt, rather than innocence.

If Hassan is found guilty of murder, he deserves an appropriately harsh sentence. Irritation and stress are no justifications for taking the life of another. To the extent the law recognizes that BPS may be used to establish self-defense, however, Hassan should fully explore this route. As well documented here and elsewhere on the internet, men endure great risk within marriage; even with a prenup, there is no guarantee against a wife falling out of love with a man – possibly even because of his own actions aimed to demonstrate commitment and caring – and, maliciously or not, making him an indentured servant to her, the state and the courts. For anyone with future-time orientation, this is a significant amount of background stress. Is it so hard to believe that a wife’s nagging and unceasing pestering can aggravate it to dangerous levels, even on par with those experienced by a beaten women? When a fight ends, it’s over and the pain subsides even if psychological harm persists; nagging and criticism about male worth, especially over years, goes right to the psychological core. If one’s spouse is his equal and confidant, how can he stay balanced if she thinks of – and treats – him as barely a man?

BPS may not be appropriate in this case due to the need for an articulable theory of self-defense. It should not be written off as unavailable to men, though. If psychological harm truly is a concern and probative of self-defense in murder cases, men should have every ability to show their victimization at the hands of their wives as well.