Unclear and Present Danger: Self-Defense Laws

Unclear and Present Danger: Self-Defense Laws

by Leah Rose

Was it murder or self-defense? Some legal experts and activists in Ulster County, N.Y. say the jurors couldn’t fairly decide because they didn’t get to hear all the relevant evidence.

In February 1995, Iris Pyne, 54, was convicted of second degree murder and later sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison for the shooting death of her husband, Richard. Mrs. Pyne claims that when she fired 10 rounds at her husband in their home, she was protecting herself and that Richard had physically abused her for 14 years. The incident took place hours after Mrs. Pyne, then a candidate for the New Paltz town board, learned that others in the community knew of an extramarital affair her husband was having.

In a case which kept jurors sequestered for two nights, a rare event in the upstate N.Y. County Court, Judge Michael Bruhn refused to admit evidence of Richard Pyne’s violence against his previous wife.

Now under appeal, the case of Iris Pyne and other recent homicides involving battered women who killed their alleged abusers, is causing experts and activists alike to ask: “Do these women have equal protection under self-defense law, or does the law need changing?”

Self-defense law was designed
to protect men who kill during
surprise attacks or consensual
brawls. Does the law need
amending to offer equal
protection to women?

Self-defense laws were written to protect men who found themselves in two typical situations that resulted in killings – surprise attacks and “consensual brawls,” according to Vicki Lutz, a staff attorney with the Pace School of Law, Battered Women’s Justice Project in White Plains, New York. With these scenarios in mind, the courts traditionally admit only evidence of a recent nature believed to have affected the defendant’s state of mind and sense of “immediate” or “imminent” danger at the time of the killing.

In today’s cases involving battered women, the fear of death is real but not always “immediate” or “imminent.” Battered women sometimes kill their batterers when they are sleeping for fear of being killed themselves in the near future. To ensure fairer protection for these women under self-defense laws, Lutz and Justice Project Director Michael Dowd are pushing for a language change in the law that would add a clause about danger that is “reasonably certain to happen.”

In Pyne’s case, Lutz agrees with the judge’s decision not to admit evidence of Richard Pyne’s three, 10-year-old convictions, which included a misdemeanor for attacking his previous wife: “Most judges wouldn’t allow minor incidents of assault to show anything about the defendant’s state of mind 10 years later.” Indeed, Judge Bruhn told ON THE ISSUES that he made the ruling because the evidence was “too remote in time and it involved a third party.”

This may only demonstrate that our legal precedents need amending. According to Sue Ostoff, an attorney at the National Clearing House for the Defense of Battered Women in Pennsylvania, “When battered women are on trial, judges apply traditional self-defense law. But these women usually have a much longer and greater history with the deceased [than men in self-defense cases]. In my opinion, every defense ought to bring in all that contextual evidence.” Other commentators agree. Because Richard Pyne had a history of assaulting his two wives, the time lapse is “less important,” said Joan Zorza, senior attorney at the National Center on Women and Family Law in Manhattan. “I think the judge should have allowed it with a limiting instruction, that [the conviction] may be related not to the immediate day but to [Iris Pyne’s] view of what was going on.”

Mrs. Pyne’s knowledge of the incidents with his former wife could have affected her state of mind at the time of the killing, and the incidents provided independent corroboration of Richard Pyne’s violent nature, said defense attorney William Tendy. “The most critical issue you can have in a battered woman’s case is independent corroboration.”

Because Richard Pyne’s prior convictions were not admitted into evidence, Tendy did not present his defense. The jury never got to hear about the four orders of protection that Iris had obtained against Richard, nor expert psychological testimony about Mrs. Pyne’s state of mind as a battered woman. Neither did Mrs. Pyne testify on her own behalf, because, according to Tendy, “to subject her to cross-examination without corroboration, I thought, would make the case worse.”

Tendy has forged an appeal based on “improper or prejudicial rulings.” These include Judge Bruhn’s instruction to jurors that Mrs. Pyne was obligated to attempt to flee in order to qualify for consideration under self defense law. According to Lutz, the instruction was improper because the incident took place in Mrs. Pyne’s home. This use of an archaic clause related to public situations in which men Could retreat is “contrary to every defense from your own home,” Lutz said. Even in states requiring an attempt to retreat under self-defense law, the exception is usually “in a [man’s] castle” or home.

According to attorney Sue Ostoff, “The problem is not the codes, but the application of the codes.” But Tendy disagrees: “Rules regarding battered women’s cases have got to change.”

Vicki Lutz believes that changes will occur only if there is a “groundswell.” She noted that the repeated rallying of scores of activists in Ulster County resulted in several articles in The New York Times.

The appeals process in Pyne’s case may effect some change, depending on the comments and rulings made by the appellate court judges. Tendy has requested a dismissal, which forces a word-for-word reading of the trial transcript by these judges. He feels that, “when you read the entire record you can smell the unfairness.”

Leah Rose writes from Ulster County, NY.