Murder suspect suffered from ‘battered-spouse syndrome,’ witness testifies
A Lumberton woman on trial for the killing of her boyfriend last year showed textbook signs of battered-spouse syndrome, an expert witness said on the second day of her murder trial.
Elizabeth Taylor, 71, is charged in connection with the death of Larry Atwood, 58, who was shot while the pair were traveling north on the Eastex Freeway near Beaumont’s Home Depot on Oct. 11, 2017.
Taylor didn’t know Atwood had died until the end of an hour-long interview with Beaumont Police Department the night of the incident, court testimony showed Wednesday.
“Oh no,” she cried when she heard of his death, burying her face in her hands. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to kill him. I’m so sorry, I loved him.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Edward Gripon, the defense’s first expert witness, described Taylor and Atwood’s relationship as “tumultuous, volatile and combative.”
Gripon, who conducted a psychiatric exam of Taylor in the months before the trial, said there are reasons people with battered-spouse syndrome choose to stay with their partners. Some feel they have no choice, others are overly hopeful the abuse will stop, and still others feel they are responsible for the ongoing hurt.
He described the phenomenon as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Abusers pick an individual they can control, someone not physically their equal,” he said.
In the interview with law-enforcement officials, which was played on Wednesday for the nine women and three men on the jury, Taylor said Atwood “doesn’t know how to treat a lady, an older lady.”
Taylor told authorities that she pulled out her gun that October day because Atwood had his left hand on the wheel and the other on the back of her neck, slamming her head into the dashboard. All the while, he was yelling and cursing at her, she said. He even had his hand on her nose, Taylor said, either trying to break it or to stop her from breathing.
Gripon said it was likely that Taylor stayed with him because she professed to love him and had a hope that he would not hurt her again. She told police she “had empathy” for Atwood.
“It’s a part of the syndrome,” Gripon said. Ninety-four percent of battered spouses are female and six percent are male, he added.
“Larry has been so good to me in so many ways,” Taylor said in the interview. “I’ve forgiven him but I haven’t forgotten.”
The victim in an abusive situation would ideally be able to get away without violence on either side, Gripon said. But in the case of Taylor and Atwood driving along the freeway that day, he said, “no one reasonable” would jump out of a moving vehicle.
The “fight or flight” decision depends on the circumstances, Gripon said. “Only later do you know which one is better.”
Taylor fired the first time by accident. The second time, she wasn’t aiming, she said.
Houston-based criminal defense attorney Christopher Tritico said battered-spouse syndrome is “not only a successful defense, it’s embodied in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.”
“You are allowed to raise and can call an expert witness in the form of a psychiatrist to testify as to the state of mind of the defendant at the time that she committed the murder or the killing,” said Tritico, who had no knowledge of Taylor’s case prior to a telephone interview with the Enterprise on Wednesday evening.
Tritico said the success of using battered-spouse syndrome as a defense “depends on the facts of the case.”
Cases with a “long and detailed history of spousal abuse” have a higher chance of a helping a sympathetic jury understand “how a spouse can get to a point in their life where they feel they have no other alternative but to resort to violence when they kill someone just to get out of that cycle of violence that ends in their getting hurt all the time,” he said.
But if a defendant’s suffering “has been spotty” or has occurred only a few times over a long period of time, Tritico said, “it’s going to be much harder for a jury to understand.”