State v. Kelly
97 N.J. 178, 478 A.2d 364 (1984)

  • Kelly got into a fistfight with her drunk husband in the street. A crowd separated them. A few minutes later, they got into another fight, and Kelly stabbed her husband to death with a pair of scissors.
    • Kelly claimed that she had been attacked both times by her husband, and that he had been beating her for years.
    • The prosecution had witnesses who said that Kelly instigated both incidences.
  • Kelly was arrested and charged with murder.
    • Kelly claimed that the murder was done in self-defense.
  • At Trial, Kelly attempted to introduce expert witness testimony about “battered women’s syndrome.” The Judge found the evidence was inadmissible.
    • Kelly argued that evidence of her abuse was crucial to establishing self-defense.
    • The Judge found that ­self-defense claims have an objective standard. It wasn’t whether Kelly believed her life was threatened, but whether a reasonable person in Kelly’s position would believe their life was threatened.
      • Therefore evidence as to Kelly’s subjective state of mind was inadmissible.
  • The Trial Court convicted Kelly of reckless manslaughter. She appealed.
  • The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
    • The New Jersey Supreme Court found that under New Jersey law (N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4(a)), the use of force is justifiable “when the actor reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary…”
    • The Court found that self-defense is a subjective standard under New Jersey law.
      • The Court found that Kelly’s state-of-mind was a critical issue to determining Kelly’s credibility that expert witness testimony was therefore relevant (and admissible) to establishing that Kelly honesty.
  • Alternately, one could say that under an objective standard, the question is whether a reasonable person in Kelly’s position would have believed their life was in danger, and the only way for a jury to understand what a person in Kelly’s position would have reasonably believed was with expert testimony about battered women’s syndrome.
    • Evidence of prior of battery make it more likely that Kelly’s claim that her life was in danger was reasonable.