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Case in Minnesota from 1964 was among the first to espouse battered woman syndrome

The 1964 not guilty verdict of Audrey Samuelson was the precursor to the now accepted battered woman syndrome.

A detail from the March 25, 1965, issue of the Minneapolis Tribune.
A detail from the March 25, 1965, issue of the Minneapolis Tribune.

At the end of the past year President Biden pardoned and purged the criminal records of six people.

Five of them had been convicted of relatively minor drug- and alcohol-related crimes. But one of them, Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas, was sentenced to five years in prison for shooting and killing her abusive husband in 1976. In announcing the pardon, the White House described Ibn-Tamas’ appeal of her conviction as “one of the first significant steps toward judicial recognition of battered woman syndrome (BWS).” While it’s true that the Ibn-Tamas case helped legitimize BWS as an admissible defense in a majority of states, it was not the first to feature a similar defense. One of the earliest happened a decade earlier here in Minnesota.

On Nov. 14, 1964, police in Bayport received a report of shots fired at the home of Philip and Audrey Samuelson. When they arrived, they found Philip Samuelson dead in the hall, the victim of an apparent gunshot wound. To their surprise, the suspect was there, too, and she did not try to flee. Audrey Samuelson admitted to the investigators that she had shot her husband at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun. She surrendered willingly and went to jail.

When Audrey Samuelson’s first-degree murder trial got underway three months later in Stillwater, nearly everyone – including Samuelson herself – expected a guilty verdict. But Samuelson’s lawyer, Frank Hammond, was not among them. Hammond was a corporate attorney who had agreed to take the case as a personal favor to one his firm’s most important clients. He had gotten to know Samuelson over the previous three months, and it was clear to him, from his interviews with his client and her children, that Philip Samuelson was a serial abuser. Hammond was determined to show the jury that Audrey Samuelson had killed her husband in self-defense.

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Toward the end of the trial, Hammond called Audrey Samuelson to the witness stand. As his client fought back sobs, he asked her to describe the moments leading up to the shooting.

“Do you recall your husband’s face as he came down the hall toward you?”

“Yes,” Samuelson replied. “He had that look I know – he was mad. (T)he looked like he had before when he hit me many times.”

“Did you intend to kill your husband?”

“No sir, I just didn’t want him to hurt me.”

In his summation, Hammond asked the jury members to put themselves in his client’s shoes.

“You are required,” he said, “to assume that each one of us is facing that hulk of a man coming down the hall madder than he has ever been before in all his life.”

Dave Kenney
Dave Kenney
Six hours later, the jury returned to the courtroom. The verdict: not guilty.

As far as I can tell, Audrey Samuelson was one of the first – perhaps even the first –murder defendant in the United States to win acquittal using what eventually became known as the “battered woman defense.” In the years since her acquittal, the battered woman defense and assertions of BWS have become more common in U.S. courtrooms, but they rarely succeed in securing not-guilty verdicts. While there may be plenty of reasons for that lack of success, I suspect that Americans’ historical blindness to the evils of domestic violence – what Cynthia K. Gillespie, author of “Justifiable Homicide,” calls our “painful ambivalence about violence against women” – sometimes gets in the way of justice. “Instead of blaming the perpetrator of the violence,” Gillespie writes, “we go to great lengths to find ways to blame the victim.”

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As Biden’s pardon of Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas reminds us, our tendency to blame the victim can delay justice for decades. The acquittal of Audrey Samuelson back in 1964 suggests we’ve always had it in us to do the right thing on the first try.

Dave Kenney is a freelance writer specializing in Minnesota history.