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A Harris County jury delivered a not guilty verdict Monday for a Houston-area student who shot and killed her abusive father. In April 2009, Mark Nelson walked into the bathroom and watched his twelve year-old daughter in the bathtub. Trial testimony showed that Nelson’s behavior was part of a pattern of physical and sexual abuse that started when this daughter was six. On this particular April evening, when Nelson walked into the occupied bathroom, his daughter had enough. She demanded he leave. Nelson left, but only after reportedly telling his daughter that she would regret her actions.
Scared of what might happen after standing up for herself, the girl waited in the cold bathtub until her father was asleep. She said she feared for her life. Once her father was asleep, she found the .38 caliber revolver Nelson kept under his bed and shot him once in the back of the head.
Now fifteen years old, the girl was acquitted of murder by the jury on a defense theory based on her father’s abusive past. Jurors deliberated for four days. At one point the jury was deadlocked 8 to 4 for acquittal, but eventually reached a verdict Monday. If she had been convicted, the girl could have received up to forty years in prison.
Defense attorney Windi Akins Pastorini won a great victory for abuse victims everywhere by successfully demonstrating that her client’s actions were taken in self-defense. Although a self-defense theory typically requires a more imminent threat of immediate harm, Pastorini was able to demonstrate that her client was so frightened because of years of her father’s physical and sexual abuse, that she had no other choice but to take action.
This case is one of the first in the country in which a “battered child syndrome” defense has been successful. “Harris County jurors did the right thing,” said Ellen Marrus, George Butler Research Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston Law Center. She continued, “The jurors recognized that children are different. If a child is being abused and he or she makes an outcry, and nobody does anything about it, it doesn’t give a child many avenues to rectify the situation.”