Letters of Support: Nels Thompson
As a licensed psychologist formerly employed by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), I felt compelled to write and express my professional opinion about a Michigan law which has had a detrimental effect on the trial outcomes for battered women who have killed their abusers in what they believed was an act of lawful self-defense.
During my career as a psychologist, I’ve had over 20 years experience in the field of domestic violence. In the year 2000, I was hired by the MDOC to initiate a domestic violence program for the women at Robert Scott Correctional Facility and prior to that, I’ve spent 8 years co-leading a program that treated men who were abusive to women.
During my career, I have witnessed how limitations on expert witness trial testimony, pursuant to Michigan law created by judicial decision in the 1995 case People v Christel, 449 Mich 537 (1995) has denied battered women defendants a defense that includes the reality of the domestic violence they have suffered. Testimony from credible experts in the field of domestic violence who might be able to explain experiences of battering as they specifically relate to a defendant and the facts in the case is not only relevant but essential for a fair and just determination of guilt or innocence.
Michigan law had denied juries this critical evidence.
I am particularly concerned about the effect this restrictive law has had in the 2004 high profile trial of Nancy Seaman was who convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the homicide of her abusive husband. The verdict in her case has since been overturned twice on appeal by state trial Judge John McDonald and Federal Judge Bernard Friedman who have determined that the verdict was not supported by the evidence and the omission of critical Battered Woman Syndrome evidence denied her a fair trial. I concur with their assessment and attempts to rectify the injustice in this case.
Inmate Seaman came to my attention shortly after her arrival at Robert Scott Correctional Facility because of reports and referrals that citied severe PTSD symptoms. I subsequently had a number of private and group therapy sessions with Ms. Seaman. It is without question in my mind that Ms. Seaman suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband and learned the typical coping skills of an abused woman to make sure no one would know or guess she was being abused. She learned to clean up the aftermath of her husband’s abuse, appear calm during turmoil, and suppress her emotions and tears.
In my professional opinion, violence was not natural to Ms. Seaman’s personality and the violent act that occurred in response to her husband’s final attack on her life was related to her history of abuse.
Prior incidents of abuse she endured in her 31 year marriage affected her perception of imminent danger on the morning her husband assaulted her. In my clinical experiences with victims of battering, Ms. Seaman’s act of violence in response to her husband’s assault was not different from a well-established pattern of behavior abused people exhibit when they are confronted by their abusers.
Ms. Seaman’s behavior of cleaning up the crime scene and acting as though nothing happened was consistent with her behavior throughout her marriage in response to her husband’s battering, and that behavior is not unusual for battered women in similar cases.
That very behavior that made Ms. Seaman look so guilty to the uniformed laypersons on her jury is in fact predictable behavior to those who understand the dynamics of domestic violence.
Because of Michigan law which restricted the testimony of Ms. Seaman’s expert witness to a mere description of Battered Woman Syndrome and nothing more, the jury was denied all this evidence that was critical to support Ms. Seaman’s claim of self-defense and for defending against the charge of premeditation brought against her. Michigan law placed an impermissible blanket of exclusion on a category of BWS behavior evidence that was essential for the jury’s understanding of how long-term battering affected Nancy Seaman’s state of mind and behaviors.
One need only look at the outcome in Nancy Seaman’s trial to understand the disparity in treatment battered women defendants in Michigan face as compared to similarly situation defendants in states that do not limit expert testimony. The differences are significant.
What would have likely been no more than a manslaughter charge in other states based on the documented face-to-face confrontation and defensive injuries on Ms. Seaman’s body would have allowed Ms. Seaman to eventually return to society is instead a first degree murder conviction and life imprisonment here in Michigan. This outcome is unconscionable and is the consequences of Michigan law which denied battered women the constitutional right to present BWS expert testimony critical to their defense.
I implore you to draft legislation to rectify this injustice to battered women. Preferably one that would model that of California Senate Bill No.1385 (Burton,2004),which commuted the sentences and freed hundreds of women from prison and allowed testimony on battered women’s syndrome during new trials for countless other women.
I encourage you to contact Executive Director Kelle Lynn of Justice Thru Storytelling at firstname.lastname@example.org or cell # 832.215.0030 should you care to continue further discussion on how to advocate for a grant of commutation to spare Nancy Seaman’s life.
Justice delayed for battered women like Nancy Seaman is justice denied. Please answer this call to action.
Nels Thompson M.S., L.L.P
The goal of this campaign is to convince our legislators in the state of Michigan to change People v Christel to model the California law in order to bring #Justice4Women.