Citation. 89 N.C. App. 384, 366 S.E.2d 586, 1988 N.C. App. 262.
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Brief Fact Summary.
The Defendant, Judy Ann Laws Norman (Defendant), shot and killed John Thomas Norman (Mr. Norman) while he slept after Mr. Norman had beaten the Defendant on the day in question. Mr. Norman also had a history of beating the Defendant.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The killing of a passive victim does not preclude the defense of self-defense.
Mr. Norman and the Defendant had been married twenty-five years and Mr. Norman had been beating the Defendant since about five years after they were married. Over the course of the marriage, the abuse had gotten so severe that the defense psychologist characterized it as “torture, degradation, and reduction to an animal level of existence, where all behavior was marked purely by …” The Defendant was in constant fear of Mr. Norman and she did not seek help for fear of serious reprisal by Mr. Norman, possibly including death. On the day of the killing, Mr. Norman had made the Defendant sleep on the floor until one of the couple’s daughters asked if the Defendant could watch her baby. When the baby began to cry, the Defendant took the child to her mother’s house. At her mother’s house, the Defendant found a gun, took it back to her home, and shot Mr. Norman while he was sleeping.
Does the victim’s passiveness at the time of the killing preclude the Defendant from asserting self-defense?
Held. No. In order to assert the affirmative defense of self-defense, the defendant must prove that she believed it necessary to kill in order to save herself from death or serious bodily harm. Here, the testimony tells of forced prostitution, beatings, and threats on the defendant’s life. The defendant and her experts testified that she believed killing the victim was necessary to save herself. The second element of self-defense is that the defendant’s belief be reasonable, measured by the objective standard of a person of ordinary fitness under the same circumstances. As a victim of near-constant abuse, the defendant exhibited severe symptoms of battered spouse syndrome. This must be considered in determining the reasonableness of a defendant’s belief in the necessity to kill. Given the characteristics of battered spouse syndrome, i.e. possessing a state of mind described as “learned helplessness,” the killing of a passive victim does not preclude the defense of self-defense. Hence, a jury could find that Norman’s sleep was “but a momentary hiatus in a continuous reign of terror by the decedent,” thereby justifying the killing by self-defense.
Where a battered spouse believes there is no other option than to use deadly force, he or she does not need to wait until a deadly attack occurs to act in self-defense.