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State v. Kelly

Supreme Court of New Jersey

May 10, 1983, Argued ; July 24, 1984, Decided



 [*187]  [**368]  [***2]    The central issue before us is whether expert testimony about the battered-woman's syndrome is admissible to help establish a claim of self-defense in a homicide case. The question is one of first impression in this state. We hold, based on the limited record before us (the State not having had a full opportunity to prove the contrary), that the battered-woman's syndrome is an appropriate subject for expert testimony; that the experts' conclusions, despite the relative newness of the field, are sufficiently reliable under New Jersey's standards for scientific testimony; and that defendant's expert was sufficiently qualified. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial. If on retrial after a full examination of these issues the evidence continues to support these conclusions, the expert's testimony on the battered-woman's syndrome shall be admitted as relevant to the honesty and reasonableness of defendant's belief that deadly force was necessary to protect her against death or serious bodily harm.

On May 24, 1980, defendant, Gladys Kelly, stabbed her husband, Ernest, with a pair of scissors. He died shortly thereafter at a nearby hospital. The couple had been married [***3]   [*188]  for seven years, during which time Ernest had periodically attacked Gladys. According to Ms. Kelly, he assaulted her that afternoon, and she stabbed him in self-defense, fearing that he would kill her if she did not act.

Ms. Kelly was indicted for murder.  At trial, she did not deny stabbing her husband, but asserted that her action was in self-defense. To establish the requisite state of mind for her self-defense claim, Ms. Kelly called Dr. Lois Veronen as an expert witness to testify about the battered-woman's syndrome. After hearing a lengthy voir dire examination of Dr. Veronen, the trial court ruled that expert testimony concerning the syndrome was inadmissible on the self-defense issue under State v. Bess, 53 N.J. 10 (1968). Apparently the court believed that the sole purpose of this testimony was to explain and justify defendant's perception of the danger rather than to show the objective reasonableness of that perception.

Ms. Kelly was convicted of reckless manslaughter. In an unreported decision relying in part on Bess, the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction. We granted certification, 91 N.J. 539 (1983), and now reverse.

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97 N.J. 178 *; 478 A.2d 364 **; 1984 N.J. LEXIS 2698 ***


Prior History:  [***1]  On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division


expert testimony, syndrome, battering, self-defense, battered women, battered women's syndrome, battered-woman's, trial court, scientific, psychological, reliable, cases, kill, violence, domestic violence, beatings, stabbing, woman's, manslaughter, proffered, reckless, rules of evidence, daughter, imminent, assaults, violent, honest, sexual, homicide, abused

Criminal Law & Procedure, Defenses, Self-Defense, General Overview, Ignorance & Mistake of Fact, Jury Instructions, Particular Instructions, Reasonable Doubt, Theory of Defense, Battered Person Syndrome, Evidence, Testimony, Expert Witnesses, Criminal Proceedings, Types of Evidence, Admissibility, Helpfulness, Crimes Against Persons, Assault & Battery, Simple Offenses, Scientific Evidence, Children & Minors, Child Abuse, Elements, Domestic Offenses, Domestic Assault, Standards of Review, Abuse of Discretion