By: Sienna Roberts

Published on: January 25, 2024

Many 1L students across the country learned about the case State v. Norman.  What they didn’t learn are the horrors Judy Norman faced throughout her twenty-five-year marriage to John Thomas Norman.[1]  On June 12, 1985, feeling as though the horrors would never end, Judy Norman shot and killed her abusive husband, John Thomas Norman.[2]  Following those events, Judy Norman unsuccessfully tried to claim self-defense as an affirmative defense at trial.[3]

The issue with the self-defense claim for Judy Norman, and for other survivors of domestic violence who go on to kill their abusers, is when the immediate use of unlawful force is justified.[4]  Currently, the model jury instruction for self-defense states that “[u]se of force is justified when a person reasonably believes that it is necessary for the defense of oneself or another against the immediate use of unlawful force.”  Specifically for Judy Norman, the issue with this instruction was that the Supreme Court of North Carolina did not find that Judy was in imminent danger when she killed her husband.[5]

In the United States, self-defense is typically the only affirmative defense that survivors can use if they kill their abusers.[6]  However, some states also consider abuse history when establishing the facts for a duress affirmative defense.[7]  These said states across the United States are breaking away from the norm of self-defense and have established specific laws to consider a history of abuse.[8]

Currently, Florida state law is the only jurisdiction that has codified “battered woman syndrome” as its own criminal defense.[9]  United States v. Barnes in Florida defined battered woman syndrome as “a set of psychological and behavioral reactions exhibited by victims of severe, long-term, domestic physical and emotional abuse.”[10]  In Florida, as in many states, “battered woman syndrome” must be demonstrated at trial through expert witness testimony.[11]  This can pose some trouble for survivors of abuse asserting this defense, as expert witnesses can be costly and difficult to come by.

Similarly, New Jersey law explicitly considers a defendant’s history of abuse in determining the potential eligibility for a duress defense.[12]  The applicable statute states that:

“the use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.”[13]

The issue with duress is that it is a partial defense, and thus can only reduce murder to manslaughter.[14]  N.J.S.A. 2C:2‐9 specifically states that the affirmative defense of duress is “unavailable if the actor recklessly placed himself in a situation in which it was probable that he would be subject to duress.”[15]  New Jersey is also among the minority of states that requires an individual attacked by a spouse they are living with to retreat.[16]

Texas state law considers abuse in terms of substantiating different criminal defenses.[17]  One is self-defense, including deadly force, and the other is defense of a third party.[18]  Texas Penal Code § 9.31 states that “a person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.”[19]

In Illinois, state law explicitly allows for a consideration of the history of abuse between individuals when determining whether to give the jury instruction relating to voluntary manslaughter.[20]  Specifically, courts in Illinois have held that “[i]n the context of self‐defen1se, it is the defendant’s perception of the danger, and not the actual danger, which is dispositive.”[21]

In California, evidence of past abuse can also be brought up as mitigating evidence in criminal cases.[22]  California courts have held that presenting evidence of battered woman syndrome can “help the jury understand the circumstances in which the defendant found herself at the time of the killing” thus making it relevant to the jury instruction of self-defense.[23]  Similarly, California state law has also allowed for those with a history of abuse to have this history considered during parole assessments.[24]  This can lead some offenders with abuse histories to be allowed earlier parole.[25]

It is clear that it is time for the rest of the fifty states to follow the lead of Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois, and California.  Survivors of abuse deserve better.  Surviving intimate partner violence changes the circumstances of a criminal case, such that self-defense is no longer enough.

As we continue to look towards new policy change, it is imperative we look back at what we have done, and to look forward to the changes we can make.  Though no state is perfect, California may be on the right track.  Specifically, California’s use of evidence of past abuse as mitigating evidence in criminal cases stands out from the rest.[26]  Moving forward, more states should continue to consider the psychological effect of abuse on criminal defendants, and take a public policy stance on the issue, like California, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, and Illinois have done so far.[27]

[1] State v. Norman, 378 S.E.2d 8, 9 (1989).

[2] State v. Norman, 89 N.C. App. 384, 384-386 (N.C. Ct. App. 1988).

[3] Norman, 378 S.E.2d at 9; Norman, 89 N.C. App. at 385-386.

[4] Manual of Model Criminal Jury Instructions § 5.10 Specific Defenses: Self-Defense (2022).

[5] Norman, 378 S.E.2d at 9-10.

[6] Penal Reform International, Women who kill in response to domestic violence: How do criminal justice systems respond?, Linklaters LLP, 2016, at 5,

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Penal Reform International, supra note 6 at 5, 74, 82. See also Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.201.

[10] United States v. Barnes, 2010 WL 2044913, at *12 (N.D. Fla. Apr. 22, 2010).

[11] See e.g., State v. Hickson, 630 So. 2d 172, 173 (Fla. 1993).

[12] See N.J.S.A. 2C:3–4(a).

[13] Id.

[14] See Penal Reform International, supra note 6 at 85-88; see also N.J.S.A. 2C:2‐9.

[15] N.J.S.A. 2C:2‐9.

[16] See e.g. State v. Gartland, 149 N.J. 456, 467 (1997).

[17] Penal Reform International, supra note 6 at 91-93.

[18] See Tex. Penal Code § 9.31; see also Tex. Penal Code § 9.32.

[19] Tex. Penal Code § 9.31.

[20] Penal Reform International, supra note 6 at 5, 84-85.

[21] See e.g. People v. Sawyer, 503 N.E.2d 331, 331 (Ill. 1986).

[22] Penal Reform International, supra note 6 at 6, 78-81.

[23] See e.g. People v. Humphrey, 921 P.2d 1, 1 (1996).

[24] Penal Reform International, supra note 6 at 6, 78-81.

[25] Id. at 78-81.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. at 74.

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