A Project by HLS Students for Inclusion!


Supreme Court of North Carolina (1989)


Often Ignored in Class Discussion:

  • Systemic Gender Violence
  • Sex Inequality
  • The Predictably of Homicide in Domestic Violence Cases
  • Male Bias on the Court
  • Judges as perpetrators of Domestic Violence 



In this case, the Supreme Court of NC decided that Norman was entitled to neither a perfect-self defense nor an imperfect self-defense despite substantial evidence that she suffered from battered women’s syndrome.[1]  Of this decision, the majority claimed the defendant lacked the imminent harm or apparent necessity to exercise deadly force under a “reasonable belief.”  The court points to imminent harm as meaning  “immediate danger, such as must be instantly met, such as cannot be guarded against by calling for the assistance of others or the protection of the law.”[2]  The court claims that the evidence presented in Norman’s case  “did not tend to show” the defendant reasonably believed she was in such imminent danger. [3] 

 But doesn’t the evidence suggest otherwise?  According to the facts, the thirty-six hours preceding the shooting involved an intense period of abuse in which the husband “threatened to cut her throat” and “followed her to the office and dragged her” home.[4]  The facts indicate that the day prior to the killing, she called the police because the husband had “beat her so badly.”[5]  

From the perspective of a “reasonable person” suffering from battered women’s syndrome would it not be reasonable to conclude that the state government could not help you when you, as a victim of domestic violence, have already requested help to no avail?  What was she supposed to do?  I suppose this is what is meant when legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon suggests that, in the United States, gender violence is regulated not prohibited. In this case, there is certainly an argument to be made that because of the nature of the abuse in this relationship; the wife was under persistent and constant threat—the kind of domestic terror that amounts to an impending threat.  The court dismisses the wife’s testimonial in which she states that death at the hands of her husband felt inevitable and that it felt as if it were coming sooner than later, but why does inevitable and the intense escalation of events not amount to imminent danger in this case?  

Consider the risk assessments used by Jeanne Geiger Center, which evaluates the level of risk in domestic violence cases.[6]  According to research, domestic violence homicides are usually predictable.[7]  Danger risk assessments facilitated through a domestic violence high-risk team model assess the immediate danger of any given case.[8]  From the facts presented, it seems like this was a high-risk case.  At one point the wife even testified that her husband “would kill me if he got a chance.”[9] The Court patronizingly refers to her statement as “indefinite fear.”  However, even if you grant that there was not an immediate chance of death, [10]what about her fear of “great bodily harm?”  Surely, a reasonable juror could find that at least that condition was met in her testimony since in that remark she also stated “I was scared when he took me to the truck stop that night it was going to be worse than he had ever been.”[11] Might worse have been death?  Nevertheless, the court argues than an “actual attack” or “threat of attack by the husband” at the moment in which the wife exercised deadly force was necessary to sustain a claim of perfect self-defense.[12] Even the lower court acknowledges that to impose such requirements would “effectively preclude such women from exercising their right of self-defense.”[13]

The North Carolina Supreme Court worries about giving “imminent” a new meaning under common law.  Maybe it does, if by new meaning you mean a definition that actually captures the distinct experience of gendered violence that men overwhelming do not understand because they, as a group, do not experience it.[14] But the court does not get it, they have very little empathy for this particular victim of domestic violence.  Following the god-like rejection of the perfect self-defense claim, the court also dismisses the imperfect self-defense claim on similar grounds.  In his dissent, Judge Martin gets it right when he states that “the . . . [question] is not whether the threat was in fact imminent, but whether defendant’s belief was reasonable in the mind of a person of ordinary firmness.”


Critical Questions:

In this case, I suspect the majority ignores their own abstract principles of the “reasonable person” standard due to gender bias.  Here, the court condescendingly refers to the wife’s “subjective belief” in the threat as if it had no bearing in reality.  One wonders how subjective a belief can be when it is symptomatic of systemic patterns of gender violence that predict homicides by male spouses.  Do you think the judge realizes the scope of gender violence?  Do you think they care to?  Is it in the interests of males to care about gender violence?  What if the judge(s), the mostly male figures who decide these cases, are abusers themselves?  Compare this case to Goetz, where there was clearly no immediate harm to the defendant according to his own words.  There HE gets a slap on the wrist; here SHE gets time.  What accounts for the difference in your view?  Let’s return back to the statistics that conservatives love to bring up in the racial context.  Consider the fact that a woman’s male spouse is statistically the most likely to be the cause of their death in the event of a homicide? Should that have an affect on the reasonable standard when it comes to female defendants in domestic violence cases?  Do you think conservatives who use such statistics in the race context would remain consistent in this context and answer in the affirmative?  Can you think of some relevant differences between the race and gender case? 

[1] The perfect self-defense is a legal defense for an act of physical retaliation that is justified in law. By contrast, an imperfect self-defense is a legal defense for an act of retaliation that is excused but not justified.  While a successful claim of perfect self-defense would entitle a defendant to an acquittal, a successful imperfect defense claim only reduces the charge (e.g. from murder to > manslaughter). In this way, it can be thought of in a similar vein as the doctrine around provocation, which can also mitigate a charge. See Kadish Et Al. supra note 7 at 848-852 (“the Court of Appeals concluded that a jury reasonable could have found that . . . the defendant killed her husband lawfully in perfect self-defense, even though he was asleep when she killed him.”)

[2] See id. at 850 (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 676 (5th ed. 1979)).

[3] Note the god perspective in the law – law simply is in this picture.  In the real frame, however, this was opinion was handed down by male judges.  Id.


[4] See id. at 848-852.

[5] Id.

[6] See Jean Geiger Crisis Center, Greater Newburyport Domestic Violence High Risk Team: Safety & Accountability Report 2005-2013, Dec. 2013, http://www.dvhrt.org/assets/resources/Safety_Accountability_Report_2005_2013.pdf.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See supra note 7 at 848-852.

[10]  Which, in practice, I suggest you should not since there is a case to be made about the imminence of threat in this particular domestic violence case.

[11] Id. at 850.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Of course there are exceptions: some men are battered by women, and some men are battered by other men.  However, as the saying goes, the exception does not make the rule.