Expert: Does Chronic Abuse Justify Murder?

Tomer Zarchin
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Tomer Zarchin

How exactly does the court define a battered woman?

That's the question being raised by a criminal law expert, who disagrees with a ruling by the Supreme Court earlier this year rejecting an appeal by a woman who had been convicted of murdering her boyfriend, and sentenced to life in prison.

Emanuel Gross, professor of Criminal Law at Haifa University, said the court ignored the characteristics of the battered woman's syndrome, as displayed by the defendant.

Erica Frishkin, 40, was sentenced to life in jail by the Haifa District Court in 2004 for stabbing her partner Danny Tatroashvilli to death. The murder in 2003 ended a violent relationship of seven years.

She told the police that while stabbing him she told him, "I stab you in the arm that beat me, in the leg that kicked me."

Frishkin, who was born in Hungary, lived with Tatroashvilli in Kiryat Ata. Three months before the murder she moved with their daughter to Kiryat Motzkin, but the relationship between the two continued.

Frishkin had lodged several police complaints for abuse during the years before the murder. In one case he was indicted and given a suspended sentence. Other cases were closed for lack of evidence, or after Frishkin asked to revoke them following Tatroashvilli's promise to mend his ways. Twice Frishkin found refuge in a battered women's shelter.

On the morning of the murder, Frishkin met Tatroashvilli on the beach with a young woman and a friend. The two started arguing. A few hours later she stabbed him with five knives, a file and a metal skewer she had brought to his flat.

The Supreme Court rejected Frishkin's appeal in February. It debated the case in view of the penal code amendment from 1995, which was enacted after the Carmela Buhbut affair. Buhbut shot her husband to death after years of abuse. The amendment enables the court not to sentence a murder convict to life if he or she is in severe mental distress following the murdered party's abuse either of the defendant or a relative of his.

Justice David Cheshin, one of the Supreme Court justices who rejected Frishkin's appeal, wrote that her mental state was not to be associated with the abuse she suffered.

He stated that the beach incident on the day of the murder showed Frishkin was angry before the murder.

"This incident severs the causal relation between the abusive acts and the murder," he ruled. Justice Ayala Procaccia agreed with him.

In a minority opinion, Justice Edna Arbel said the incident should be viewed as "battered woman syndrome." "Not infrequently, one sees battered women describe mixed and seemingly contradictory emotions toward their violent male partner," she wrote. "Feelings of optimism and hope for a better future beside feelings of despair and helplessness."

Arbel rejected the ruling that revenge was the only emotion that motivated Frishkin to kill Tatroashvilli, and objected to the statement that the event on the beach severed the causal relationship between her mental state and the murder. Arbel suggested returning the case to the District Court and obtaining a psychiatric opinion about Frishkin's mental state.

Last week Attorney Smadar Ben-Natan, Frishkin's representative, asked for another hearing before an expanded panel of justices. She said this was especially important since this was the first verdict of its kind since the amendment.

"In Frishkin's case the court fixated on the classic case of Carmela Buhbut, and any woman who wants the law's protection must look like the classic victim - Buhbut - or even more abused than her," said Ben-Natan. "I argue that the law should be adapted to the individual cases."

Emanuel Gross, a criminal law professor at the University of Haifa who studied the law's defense of battered women, said the Supreme Court has not stated exactly what kind of abuse the penal code amendment referred to.

"Studies regarding the battered woman's syndrome make it clear that a battered woman reacts differently from an ordinary person," he said. "The battered woman reacts when she feels it is safer to react, when the other side does not expect it," and not immediately.