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An Online Resource Library on Gender-Based Violence.

The Use of Expert Testimony on Intimate Partner Violence

NRCDV Publications
General Material
Published Date
August, 2009

Criminal and civil courts throughout the United States accept expert testimony on intimate partner violence (IPV) to dispel myths and to achieve just outcomes. Testimony has moved beyond the notion of the 'battered woman syndrome' to include the full range of consequences of IPV. There is no psychological diagnosis that captures the experiences of victims of IPV and there is no single, uniform response to IPV. Expert testimony can be provided by anyone with specialized training and experience with IPV. The most effective experts understand the legal process, base their testimony on state of the art scientific knowledge, and consider cultural dimensions of IPV.

Expert witnesses on IPV serve the court in several functions. They may provide direct testimony, assist an attorney with trial strategies, prepare a survivor for trial, or assist with jury selection. Often, IPV experts answer the question, 'why did she stay?' A skilled expert witness answers in ways that underscore the complex dynamics of an abusive relationship, including issues of power and control, and without pathologizing the survivor. Testimony is given under oath and should be based on generally accepted research and an awareness of all significant positions on controversies in the field.

IPV experts may participate in many types of cases. These include:

  • Criminal cases: The expert provides information on how IPV affects a victim's perceptions and actions. Testimony may be introduced at any stage in the process, including grand jury hearings, plea negotiations, trials, sentencing, and clemency or parole hearings. The most widely accepted use of IPV experts is in traditional self defense cases when a victim of IPV kills the abuser. IPV experts are also used to explain why a victim commits a crime under orders from an abuser, fails to report an abuser's crimes, or does not prevent or intervene in the abuse of children by the perpetrator. Experts are often needed to explain why victims do not report, change their stories, recant testimony, or assist in the prosecution of perpetrators.
  • Marital dissolution and child custody cases: Researchers have demonstrated patterns of manipulation, minimization of harm, threats, and violent retaliation by perpetrators of IPV in the process of separation, divorce, and custody proceedings. Experts can help explain these patterns and the threat to children and non-abusing parents.
  • Tort cases: Experts can help explain the damages experienced by victims to establish the basis for compensation.
  • Immigration cases: Expert witnesses in immigration cases are often needed to educate the court on the prevalence, dynamics, and complexity of IPV, the effects of trauma and abuse on survivors, the impact of deportation on the survivors and their children, and the lack of resources for survivors in their countries of origin.

The use of expert testimony on IPV is critical to develop legal responses that are responsive to the experiences of survivors. Yet this testimony is fraught with contradictions and dilemmas. If experts rely on a unidimensional and pathological model of IPV, they affirm an image that contradicts the diversity, strength, and resourcefulness of survivors. These reified, distorted representations, however, often elicit greater sympathy and more lenient responses than those that adhere to more nuanced and realistic depictions. The research on the effective use of expert testimony is in its infancy. Future research should build on the solid foundation of empirical evidence and theoretical analyses to date and remain focused on the goal of achieving justice for IPV survivors.

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