A Pima County woman was charged with kidnapping and child abuse for keeping her three children locked up for months under horrible conditions. She was found guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. During the course of her trial, her attorney attempted to raise the defense of duress, which in her case consisted essentially of battered woman syndrome. The argument would have been that the woman endured years of abuse at the hands of her children’s stepfather, that she suffered from PTSD, and was too scared of being further abused to help her children. When she tried to raise the defense of duress, the trial judge ruled that it was not available to her. She appealed.
Potential defenses that may be applicable to those charged with criminal offenses in Arizona include not only claims such as insanity and self-defense, but also several other defenses under the general heading of “justification.” One of those defenses is known as duress. The question in cases where duress is raised, is what the defendant needs to show to support the defense.
Duress is defined in A.R.S. 13-412. The statute says that if you engage in conduct that would otherwise be a criminal offense, that conduct may be justified – that is, excused from criminal liability – if a reasonable person in your circumstances would believe that he or she was forced to act by the use or the threat of “immediate” physical force against you or another person, which force could lead to serious physical injury. The statute requires, further, that it is available only if a reasonable person, faced with the same situation, would not have resisted the use of force. (The law goes on to say that if you voluntarily or recklessly place yourself in a position where you would be subject to duress, the defense is not available. Nor is it available as a defense to a charge of homicide or a charge involving serious physical injuries.)
On appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the trial judge was wrong when he barred the defense from presenting evidence of duress. The majority (it was a 4 – 3 decision) said that if the evidence was admitted into evidence, the jury could have determined that the woman was constantly in fear, leading her to believe she had no choice but to go along with her husband’s actions. The court vacated her conviction and sentence, although it is anticipated that the prosecution will request a new trial.
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