Letters of Support: Norman Lippitt
September 5, 2018
RE: People v. Christel, 449 Mich 537 (1995)
Nancy Seaman #520695
Incarcerated since 2004
As a judge who has served on the Sixth Circuit court in Michigan for four years, I’m writing to express my professional opinion about a Michigan law which significantly impedes a battered woman defendant’s constitutional right to present Battered Woman Syndrome evidence at trial which is critical to her defense.
In the interests of justice, I am recommending that you initiate legislation to change this law as the State of California did in 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.
It is unusual for a judge to advocate for the governor to commute the sentence of a prisoner, but in the 2004 case of Nancy Seaman who was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the homicide of her abusive husband, I feel compelled to do so. My concern about the outcome of this case was the fact that Michigan law had severely limited the trial testimony of her expert witness, denying Ms. Seaman the evidence she needed to defuse against charges brought against her.
It has been over two decades since the Michigan Supreme Court held in People v Wilson (1992) that expert testimony on Battered Woman Syndrome is relevant and admissible in cases where domestic violence was a factor in the commission of an offense. However, that Court subsequently imposed severe limitation on that expert testimony, pursuant to People v Christel (1995).
As a result of this law, the trial testimony of Nancy Seaman’s expert witness, Dr. Lenore Walker, was limited to only a general explanation of Battered Woman Syndrome. Dr. Walker was prohibited from presenting her clinical diagnosis that Ms. Seaman was a “battered woman” and she was not allowed to link the Syndrome to the specific facts of Seaman’s case. This omitted testimony was essential for the jury’s understanding of how Nancy Seaman, who the jury viewed as competent in her career as a school teacher, was in fact a “battered woman” whose state of mind and behaviors were significantly affected by 31 years of domestic abuse.
Only a qualified expert could explain how years of abuse colored the lens through which Ms. Seaman assessed the threat of danger to herself on the morning her husband assaulted her. This evidence was critical for supporting her claim of self defense and for defending against the charge of premeditation brought against her. Michigan law denied the jury this evidence.
As Federal Judge Bernard Friedman opined in 2010 when he overturned the verdict, “The jury was left to assess Seaman’s actions without the benefit of Dr. Walker’s testimony evaluating her conduct in the context of Battered Woman Syndrome. Many of Seaman’s actions were likely difficult for jurors to understand without specific expert testimony.”
The federal court ruled that Ms. Seaman was prejudiced as a result and I concur with that assessment.
Unreasonable restrictions on the right to present witnesses in one’s defense not only compromise the right to a fair trial, but undermine the reliability of any verdict rendered at such a trial. Michigan law is contrary to U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence on a defendant’s right to a complete defense. As that Court stated in Rock v Arkansas, “A state may not apply a rule of evidence that permits a witness to take the stand, but then arbitrarily excludes material portions of that testimony.”
Battered women in Michigan already face many hurdles of inequality in the criminal justice system. Statistics show that victims of domestic violence receive higher convictions rates and longer prison sentences than all others charged with homicide, including those with previous violent criminal records. Under such circumstances, it is imperative that Michigan law not be allowed to further impede a battered woman’s right to due process.
In an attempt to rectify the injustice in Nancy Seaman’s case, both trial Judge John McDonald and federal Judge Bernard Friedman overturned the verdict in her case, and I agree with those rulings.
The prosecutor’s appeals which reversed these appellate decisions have denied Ms. Seaman the relief from judgment the courts have ruled is appropriate and this is an unconscionable outcome.
It is my sincerest hope that you will initiate legislation to change this restrictive evidentiary law that denied Michigan battered women the right to a complete defense.
More information on this nationwide campaign can be found on the website of Justice Thru Storytelling at jtsadvocates.com. Please contact Kelle Lynn, Executive Director of JTS at cell phone 832.215.0030 for any additional information or to schedule a meeting for further discussion.
Norman L. Lippitt
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.