Sunday, April 11, 2010


I met Dr. Ellen McDaniel on Wednesday, because she is our expert in a murder trial that I am second-chairing. Dr. McDaniel evaluated our client and researched the background of our client's husband, who brutalized his previous wife, fought in bars, and had gotten fired from his job due to his "violence." Dr. McDaniel concluded that, when our client shot her husband, our client was suffering from battered spouse syndrome. The prosecutor demanded to interview Dr. McDaniel as to the basis of her diagnosis.

The meeting happened in our office, the local branch of the Public Defender's Office. The prosecutor did not come discretely and solo. The State's Attorney, who is the first-chair prosecutor, arrived with another prosecutor, who is the second-chair prosecutor, and a police detective in a suit. We, also, gathered as a team, with our investigator, the district public defender, who is my boss and the first-chair in the trial, and me trying to find a way to squeeze into my boss's small office. The prosecutorial gang sat in a row of chairs that took up most of the length of the room. Our investigator sat in a chair backed up against a bookcase behind everyone. I perched on a table so that the prosecutors and the detective were slightly to my right and my boss and Dr. McDaniel were slightly to my left. My boss and Dr. McDaniel sat behind my boss' desk.

Dr. McDaniel has grace, sophistication, and a backbone, reminding me of a heroine in a Katherine Hepburn-era movie. She has a light gray, jaw-length bob that frames her narrow face. She walked into our office in a light gray, basket weave, swing jacket that perfectly matched her hair color. She had attached a pin on her right side that was a combination of red, yellow, and purple enameled flowers with a smattering of little diamonds around them. Dr. McDaniel moved with confidence and poise. She exuded classiness.

Dr. McDaniel started off her career toiling on behalf of The House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women that started in Maryland. She helped it develop from the "ground floor." She also was instrumental in getting the Maryland legislature to pass a statute recognizing battered spouse syndrome in the early 90s. She told me that back then, she didn't realize how long legislative sessions would go and parked her car in Annapolis in a parking garage that closed at 7:30. She was wrapped up in her advocacy for the bill and forgot about the car. When she was ready to make her way home, she realized that the closed gate and locked door of the parking garage put her car off limits until the morning. She laughed that she didn't want to bother anyone and took a cab to a hotel where she called her husband and explained that she would see him when she got her car in the morning.

From the beginning of the meeting, the prosecutor focused on grilling Dr. McDaniel about what specific incidents made her arrive at her diagnosis. She explained that the pattern of violence is what she found relevant to her diagnosis. She said she'd carefully researched the couple's history and found extensive evidence corroborating that our client's ex-husband was a violent man both inside and outside of the marriage.

She entertained the prosecutor's questions for a while without letting him push her around. He asked her if she'd read discovery (documents such as the police reports that the government must give to the defense to prepare for trial) and, then, followed up with a question about what parts of the police report she'd relied on in forming her opinion. She cut him off. She firmly told him that she was not under oath in a courtroom and no one expected her to indulge him by sitting through a practice cross-examination. She refused to go line-by-line through the report. She offered politely to explain the big picture, mentioning her willingness to define battered spouse syndrome and explain why our client would meet the diagnosis for it in general terms. She said that she would not be tricked into nailing herself to a list of specific incidents as a comprehensive, exhaustive list. She could not off of the top of her head detail every physical and psychological attack on our client by her ex-husband that is relevant to her finding. Dr. McDaniel instructed the prosecutor to look at the pictures of the Defendant. According to Dr. McDaniel, the first time she saw our client, our client's face looked like it had been through a meat grinder because of the severe beating at the hands of her husband that our client had just suffered through.

During this exchange, the second-chair prosecutor appeared ready to growl at any moment and spread dirty looks around the room. She at least maintained silence until the end. Then, my boss walked the prosecutorial group out of our office. My boss asked the second-chair prosecutor a question about the role of the police detective that came with them in the investigation and the second-chair prosecutor snapped, as she hustled toward the parking lot: "Read the police report."

After the prosecutorial group left, Dr. McDaniel made a few comments about the meeting and offered to let me borrow a few of her books on battered spouse syndrome. True to her word, I received her books in the mail a few days later.

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