A woman from Belize has been cleared of murder after setting alight her partner, in response to years of his physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
In July 2010, Lavern Longsworth threw kerosene and a candle over David White at their home in Belize City, because she feared he was going to attack her. White died in hospital from his burns two weeks later.
British psychiatrist Dr Gillian Mezey, who travelled to Belize to examine Longsworth, said that Longsworth would have had a heightened sense of fear of White, on account of the long-term abuse that she had suffered. On the night in question, Longsworth would have effectively re-lived earlier experiences and would have had difficulty controlling herself against any perceived threat from him.
Longsworth was originally convicted of murder during a jury trial in November 2012. But the Court of Appeal in Belize recognized that the fresh evidence of Dr Mezey showed that Longsworth was suffering from Battered Woman Syndrome at the time of the killing, meaning that both her emotional and behavioural responses would have been affected by the repeated abuse.
Her life sentence for murder was overturned and she was sentenced to eight years imprisonment instead for manslaughter.
It is more than 20 years since Kiranjit Aluwahlia, the subject of the British film Provoked, first brought Battered Woman Syndrome into the British courtroom, in remarkably similar circumstances. Aluwahlia was convicted of burning her husband to death using a mixture of caustic soda and petrol in 1989. Supporters of Aluwahlia campaigned for change so that women who kill as a result of severe domestic violence are not treated as murderers.
It is thought, however, that this is the first time that Battered Woman Syndrome has been used in the Caribbean region as part of a defence to murder.
Former Attorney-General of Belize, Godfrey Smith SC, said the decision had helped “open the way for Battered Woman Syndrome to be used as a critical part of an accused woman’s defence in Belize”.
Godfrey Smith and Leslie Mendez, Belizean attorney-at-law, were aided by London based organisation the Death Penalty Project, which became involved after it feared a miscarriage of justice had taken place.
Barrister Amanda Clift-Matthews was instructed pro bono to assist.
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