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Dissertation

Parricide, expert testimony, and the admissibility of battered child syndrome

26 July 1996

Abstract

When children kill their parents, a long-standing history of extreme child abuse is frequently revealed. Because of this abuse, defense attorneys increasingly claim that these children act in self-defense and suffer from battered child syndrome. They base this defense on precedents established by battered woman syndrome. However, in cases of parricide, expert testimony on battered child syndrome and the psychological sequelae of child abuse remains controversial. The Frye standard or the Federal Rules of Evidence standard for scientific information must be met before an expert will be allowed to testify. Frye uses the "general acceptance" standard (i.e. testimony must meet general acceptance in the field of specialty) while the Federal Rules of Evidence allows testimony "heIpful" to the jury to be admitted. The Federal Rules also demand that research methodology must be reliable and valid for admissibility of testimony. This dissertation evaluates the scientific research on battered child syndrome and child abuse to determine if the standards set forth by Frye or the Federal Rules of Evidence are met. An examination of the literature related to battered child syndrome and the psychological sequelae of child abuse revealed that the vast majority of research does not meet the Frye or the Federal Rules of Evidence standards. Battered child syndrome is not generally accepted by the fields of psychology or psychiatry and therefore is not admissible under the Frye standard. It also does not meet the Federal Rules of Evidence standards for reliability and validity. When the literature surrounding the psychological sequelae of child abuse was reviewed, a small percentage of better designed research met the standards of the Federal Rules of Evidence. However, this research does not meet the Frye standards because the research has found many contradictory findings. Therefore, there is no agreement among psychologists as to the psychological sequelae of child abuse. In addition, when examining the similarities between battered woman syndrome and battered child syndrome, the hypothesis that these syndromes are analogous is rejected. This dissertation rejects the use of battered child syndrome as a defense for children who kill their parents, and calls for bettered designed research to identify causative factors in cases of parricide, and the use of legal alternatives to recognize the special circumstances which often accompany adolescent parricide.


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