Donna Yaklich To Be Released After 18-Year
Woman Convicted Of Conspiracy In Police Husband's
October 20, 2005
ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. -- The Pueblo woman
convicted of hiring two teens to kill her police detective husband is
heading to a halfway house after spending almost 18 years in prison.
Donna Yaklich, 50, was ordered released from the
Colorado Women's Correctional Facility in Canon City in the next 10
days and will be moving to a halfway house in Arapahoe County. The
decision was made Thursday afternoon by the Arapahoe County Community
Corrections Board. Yaklich was not at the hearing and learned of the
decision by phone.
She was arrested after Dennis Yaklich was gunned
down in the driveway of their home in 1985 and eventually convicted of
conspiracy to commit murder in the death. She was sentenced to 40
years in prison.
Two brothers, Charles and Edward Greenwell, were
also arrested and sentenced to prison terms for killing Yaklich.
Charles Greenwell, who was 16 at the time of the crime, received a
20-year prison sentence; Eddie, then 25, received 30 years.
Donna Yaklich maintained she was abused by her
husband, who was a weightlifter and took steroids. She said she was
afraid he would kill her.
A state task force has reopened the investigation
into the 1977 death of Dennis Yaklich's first wife. The original
investigation concluded that Barbara Yaklich died of a diet drug
overdose. Donna Yaklich has said she thinks her husband was involved
in the death.
The story of Donna Yaklich and her conviction was
used in a 1994 made-for-TV movie, starring Jaclyn Smith of "Charlie's
Death Investigation Of Police Officer's Wife
Homicide Can't Be Ruled Out, Probe Determines
May 13, 2006
PUEBLO, Colo. -- Homicide cannot be ruled out in
the 1977 death of the wife of a prominent police detective partly
because an investigation at the time was incomplete, a cold case team
"This case needed some good, basic and
old-fashioned police work," said Steve Johnson of the Colorado Bureau
of Investigation and head of the team. "In my opinion, I have seen
better documented traffic accidents."
The case was reopened eight months ago after
discrepancies were found in Barbara Yaklich's autopsy report.
Questions about the case have swirled since Donna Yaklich, Dennis
Yaklich's second wife, claimed her husband abused her and implied he
had a part in Barbara Yaklich's death and could make her death look
like an accident, too.
Dennis Yaklich was killed in 1985 by two teenagers
hired by Donna Yaklich, which inspired a 1994 made-for-TV movie. Donna
Yaklich served 18 years of a 40-year sentence before being released
last year. She is now living the Denver metro area.
Cold case team members, which included detectives
from the Denver police department and Pueblo sheriff's office, found
no evidence of a cover up or conclusive evidence to rule Yaklich's
death a homicide.
The original autopsy said Yaklich fainted from
taking diet pills and suffered bleeding in the abdomen when her
husband, who was also a bodybuilder, tried to "energetically"
However, Denver-area pathologist Michael Dobersen
found that the coroner's conclusions were "very unusual" and the
"entire scenario is simply not credible," he wrote in a 2005 letter to
More likely, Dobersen wrote, Yaklich's internal
damage was caused by a blow to the abdomen. A second forensic
The cold case investigation into Barbara Yaklich's
death is complete, but the case remains open. Her death is now listed
as suspicious with the cause of death as blunt force trauma.
A Summary by Donna
Dennis and I met in April 1977. I was 22 and he
was 30. I moved in with him a few months later to help him with his
3-year-old daughter and his three step-children, ages 9, 11, and 12.
My plan was to stay that summer, get Dennis’ kids back in the home
because they were living at his mother’s house, and then go back to
Tulsa. I had not expected to fall in love with the children who so
desperately needed someone. Their mother, Barbara Yaklich, had passed
away unexpectedly on February 14, 1977. They were grieving for their
mother, so I couldn’t bear to leave them. Dennis had become abusive
about a month after I moved in and I left a few times but like most
battered women, I went back. I feared Dennis, but at the same time I
felt at home with him because I had grown up in an abusive
environment. I fell into the trap of thinking if I could make
everything perfect for him he wouldn’t get mad at me or at the kids.
Dennis’ threats to kill me or kill someone I loved if I ever left
again, kept me there. Eventually, I lost myself. I lost hope.
Because Dennis was a police officer I knew that I would not, I could
not be protected from him. Dennis’ fellow officers knew he was out of
control, but they also knew when they needed him he would be the first
to go through the door. No one who worked with him would go against
him. Dennis’ narcotic operations gave him access to federal law
enforcement agents with the capabilities of finding anyone, anywhere.
He warned me I would never get away from him; he could always find
me. I believed him. I became very depressed and mad at myself
because I had not trusted my instincts about leaving the relationship
when the abuse started. Suicidal thoughts became an answer. Then
came homicidal thoughts. Looking back I wish I would have listened to
my instincts, but there came a point when I just stopped listening.
Suicide or homicide is definitely NOT the answer. As for my life now,
being in prison is similar to the prison I put myself in while I was
married to Dennis. However, prison is also what you make of it so
I’ve enrolled in educational programs, had therapy, and also taken
care of myself. Things I should have done in society.
THE TOTALITY OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES
A Suspicious Death
Barbara Yaklich died on Valentine’s Day, 1977. She
appeared fine to her adolescent daughter before she left for school
that morning. About an hour later Barbara was dead. Dennis was the
only one known to be with her at the time. The cause of death was
determined to be internal bleeding as a result of a lacerated liver.
Dennis told the coroner Barbara passed out and when he attempted to
administer CPR in a hyper state of panic he must have accidentally
caused the injury. An ambulance company owned by Dennis’
supervisor’s brother transported Barbara’s body from the Yaklich home
to Parkview Hospital. The investigating agency, the Pueblo Sheriff’s
Department, was not notified until two hours later. The lead
detective acquiesces there was no examination of a possible crime
scene, and he can offer no explanation for what he coined to be “so
many holes in this case, it’s like Swiss cheese.” Dennis was
eventually asked to take a polygraph, which he refused. No charges
were ever filed. Many questions remain unanswered.
Some people in the community, including at least
one of Dennis’ former co-workers, believe Dennis murdered Barbara and
got away with it. Whether Barbara’s death was in fact intentional or
not, Dennis threatened Donna that she would end up like his first
wife. Notwithstanding the paramount importance of Donna’s
well-founded belief that Dennis had killed Barbara, and the impact
that belief had on her state of mind, she was prohibited from making
any reference to that during her testimony at trial.
Evidence of Abuse: Professionally and
The incidents of Dennis’ brutality to the public in
Pueblo are numerous. However, even to this day police administrators
deny the validity of citizens’ complaints against Dennis Yaklich,
calling them myths ascribed to the Yaklich legend. This, in spite of
the statements by his closest colleagues who readily admit to Dennis’
abusive tactics on the job. Some even said they dreaded working with
him because of the way he conducted himself. One former partner
explained that he always had to “clean up after Dennis.” But, his
fellow officers conceded, when you needed someone to knock down a door
and clear a room, Dennis was the guy to go to.
At 6’5” and 280 pounds, Dennis’ size alone was
menacing. Combined with his continuous use of steroids to enhance his
competitive weight-lifting edge, his aggressive tendencies were
terrorizing. Other officers and even a supervisor admitted that at
times when Dennis became confrontational with them, they threatened to
shoot him because they knew they couldn’t defend themselves any other
way. These were big, tough, specially trained law officers. Their
reactions to Dennis beg the question: How was Donna, a 5’7” 130 pound
wife and mother supposed to defend herself?
Dennis’ violence against Donna included, but is not
Slapping, kicking, choking, and pushing her down stairs; putting his
firearm to her head and threatening to kill her; taunting her by
making his hand in the form of a gun, pointing it at her then lifting
it to his lips and blowing on it as if he had actually shot her;
torturing her by using the cover of darkness in the bedroom to keep
her from gauging from what direction the blows would come; as well as
repeatedly and sadistically sexually assaulting her. Dennis’
psychological abuse of Donna was nothing short of domestic terrorism,
and it was more disabling than the physical attacks. The constant
threat of death loomed over her every single day. Not knowing where or
when the fatal act would come was more debilitating than having no
doubt it would.
Independent witnesses have corroborated Donna’s
accounts about the physical abuse. One such witness was the Yaklich’s
mailman who said he had seen bruises on Donna’s face. Another was the
telephone repairman who was called twice to their residence to fix
phones Dennis had yanked out of the wall. He made the following
statements to the lead detective overseeing Dennis’ death
investigation immediately following Donna’s arrest:
The telephone repairman told the detective he
observed “very visible bruises on Donna’s neck and cheek.” He said
they were so prominent they were noticeable “at a glance.” When the
detective asked how he could remember so vividly, the repairman
explained that in his business he sees, “a lot of things like that in
the low income areas and the projects, but I was shocked to see a
cop’s wife all bruised up like she was.”
Donna’s Cries for Help
1982, Donna called Dennis’ partner and told him Dennis was out of
control and had thrown her down the stairs and
was threatening to kill her. The Pueblo detective told her to
leave immediately. Donna explained Dennis had threatened to kill her
family, starting with her father, if she left him so she was afraid to
leave the house. Dennis’ partner has reported that at the time he
believed Donna was in fear for her life and so he immediately went to
his and Dennis’ supervisor to inform him about Donna’s call.
According to the detective, the supervisor was unsympathetic, and
gestured as if to tell his subordinate to leave it alone, it was none
of their business. The report went no further. Donna realized going
to the police was an exercise in futility.
November 1983 she went to see a psychologist. The visit was short and
traumatic with Donna sobbing uncontrollably during the entire
session. The psychologist told her to leave Dennis, but provided
little assistance as to how she was to muster the courage to do so and
how she was to do so safely. Dennis forced Donna to account for all
of her time, so she couldn’t imagine trying to explain repeated
appointments to see a therapist. After one visit, she never went
February 1984, Donna fled to a battered women’s shelter in Denver, but
as is common she returned when Dennis begged her to come home and
promised he would try to change. Donna was so ashamed of her decision
to return to him and so plagued by self blame, not knowing her
behavior was indicative of most abused women, she told the counselors
at the shelter she was moving out of state rather than admit she was
early 1985, Donna began reaching out to several people telling them
she believed Dennis was going to kill her and seeking their advice.
No one took her seriously. So she went to one of Dennis’ friends and
asked if he knew anyone that could get rid of Dennis before he killed
her as he had threatened to do. Having come to believe her own life
had no value in the eyes of others, she thought perhaps they would
place a higher value on Dennis’ and intervene. Or they would tell
Dennis what she had said resulting in the expedited conclusion of her
misery. One way or another, the torture had to end. Once again, her
cries fell on deaf ears and the abuse continued to escalate as Dennis’
larger than life persona crumbled around him.
Hopeless, Donna tried to kill herself to escape but was unable to
carry it out when thoughts of leaving her young son without a mother
filled her conscience. Recalling the pain she witnessed in the lives
of Barbara’s children, she could not imagine her son enduring those
May, 1985, Pueblo Sheriff Department Officers responded to a 911 call
made by Donna’s mother when one of the step-children called Donna’s
father reporting that he heard Dennis push Donna through the plate
glass window. The officers who responded talked with Dennis, who took
them on a tour of the gym he had built on the property, and after
barely acknowledging Donna, they left. Even though the incident was a
false alarm because the crash that was heard was a bowl hitting the
floor rather than Donna being thrown through a window, much can be
derived from the incident. None of the law enforcement officers who
responded seemed interested in exploring the inferences. Donna’s
position on the wrong side of the blue wall was reiterated again.
On December 12, 1985, one of the people to whom
Donna had expressed her desperation, a neighbor, Edward Greenwell,
went to the Yaklich residence with his younger brother, Charles. They
shot and killed Dennis Yaklich when he arrived home from work in the
early morning hours.
Both Edward and Charles Greenwell made a deal with
District Attorney Gus Sandstrom in exchange for their testimony
against Donna. They pled to 2nd degree murder with Edward
receiving a sentence of 30 years and Charles a sentence of 20 years.
Why Didn’t She Do It Herself
One of the most perplexing aspects of Donna’s case
is the number of people, INCLUDING THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY, who have
said, “If she had just done it herself, she would have walked.” Many
of these are the same people who deny the validity of her testimony
that Dennis was abusive, INCLUDING THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY. If the DA
and others did not believe Dennis was abusing Donna to the point that
she feared for her life, what is their justification for saying it
would have been all right if she had just killed him herself? The DA
claimed Donna conspired to have Dennis murdered for insurance money
not in self-defense. That being the case, on what basis would he make
the statement, “If she had shot him herself there would be no
issue.” Considering that then, according to Pueblo’s District
Attorney, money as a motive for murder is perfectly acceptable as long
as you commit the act yourself. It would seem DA Sandstrom
occasionally confused the actual truth with his version of the truth
prompting him to make comments inconsistent with his own argument.
Donna did not believe she could kill Dennis. She
did not believe she could physically carry out the act of pointing a
gun at him, pulling the trigger and ending his life. Like most
battered women, she was ambivalent toward her abusive husband. She
loved him and hated him at the same time. She was terrified that at
the moment she raised the gun on him in order to protect herself, her
love for him would override her fear of him and cause her to
hesitate. The ferocity of the ramifications of that was
unimaginable. Also impossible to overcome was the image of
invincibility that Dennis had carved out over the years, personally
and professionally. He had instilled in Donna the belief that he was
unbeatable, unstoppable and invulnerable. The persona Dennis had
created was one of superhuman strength and supremacy. Donna never
believed he would succumb to anything. Not even death.
The death of Dennis Yaklich took place in the
jurisdiction of the Pueblo Sheriff’s Office. However, a review of the
investigation reveals the unconscionable fact that not only did
Dennis’ employer, the Pueblo Police Department, encroach upon the
county’s lawful jurisdiction and take over the case, but Dennis’
narcotic detective partners were given lead roles in the inquiry. To
suggest these officers could carry on an investigation into the
circumstances of their co-worker’s death without compromising the
integrity of such an investigation is flagrantly ignorant and
As if that was not enough of a deficit in
objectivity, the District Attorney in charge of Donna’s prosecution
was also a friend of Dennis’. In fact, by his own admission, he was a
material witness in his own case. Additionally, DA Sandstrom was
involved in a highly contested election at the time Donna’s case came
to trial. The police department’s priority to conceal its own degree
of responsibility for Donna’s years of abuse and ultimately Dennis’
death, as well as the clear political agenda of the prosecutor ensured
gross prejudice against Donna from the beginning of the judicial
process to the end.
Donna’s jury acquitted her of the first-degree
murder charge against her. They convicted her of the conspiracy to
commit murder, however. Several jurors believed Donna should be
acquitted of all charges, but were fearful of retaliation from the
Pueblo Police Department. Confused by a complicated process,
intimidated by a system about which they lacked understanding, and
feeling enormous pressure to quickly reach a verdict, they voted
guilty placing their faith in the fair-mindedness of the judge. They
believed, based on the plethora of evidence of the brutal and
continuous abuse Donna suffered at the hands of her police husband,
the judge would not sentence her above the minimum, which was eight
years. They were mistaken.
In addition to Donna’s own remorseful plea for
mercy at her sentencing hearing, the probation supervisor who had
conducted the pre-sentencing investigation also testified. He
recommended the minimum sentence, and suggested Donna was an excellent
candidate for sentencing alternatives outside of the Department of
Corrections. He made the following statement in supporting his
recommendation: “I really felt that whether they did what she wanted
done, to have Dennis killed, or whether Dennis found out and killed
her, it didn’t matter. She was at a point in her life where either
The late Judge Seavy disregarded the recommendation
and clearly ignored the mitigating circumstances of Donna’s case.
He remanded her to the Department of Corrections for 40 years.
His justification for issuing a sentence above the presumptive range
was that in his mind Donna, “started this whole scenario.”
Therefore, he proclaimed, “A sentence in excess of the longest
Greenwell’s sentence is also thoroughly justified.”
Dr. Lenore Walker, who evaluated and counseled
Donna, and whose expert testimony was offered at trial said that when
the judge sentenced Donna Yaklich he was “using the court and a
woman’s life to express his own ignorance of a battered women’s
Clearly, Donna’s case is a tragic example of how
dangerously hopeless that plight can be when it is the product of
abuse by a police husband.
The jurors were horrified by Judge Seavy’s unduly
harsh sentence and more than half of them wrote letters expressing
their revulsion to the judge who presided over the sentencing
reconsideration a few years later. That judge referred to the jurors’
outrage as their disregard of Judge Seavy’s instructions, “that they
must not allow personal sympathy to influence their decision.” In his
written denial of the motion for reconsideration of sentencing, Judge
Halaas said, “Under these circumstances, the opinion of former jurors
is not useful.” One cannot help but wonder if their opinions would
have been considered valuable if they had held the belief that Donna
had gotten what she deserved. That seems a reasonable conclusion to
draw, “under the circumstances.” Several of the jurors who served
during Donna’s trial are among those diligently seeking her early
Life in Prison
Prior to her incarceration, Donna’s record was
without blemish. True to her character, her years in prison have
produced the same kind of record. She is vigilant in striving to
avoid conflicts and tirelessly adhering to the numerous rules of the
lifestyle. Serious consideration should be given to the fact that she
has successfully kept out of trouble in an environment where trouble
Donna has obtained an associate’s degree, and is
currently just a few courses away from completing her Bachelors in
psychology. She has worked in several programs to help victims of
abuse, and to aid in diverting others headed down the wrong path in
their lives. Department of Corrections supervisors and volunteers
have had high praise for the effectiveness of Donna’s work with young
people, especially those who have been victims of abuse.
Formerly assigned to maintenance, Donna is
currently participating in a computer-refurbishing program, continuing
to demonstrate her commitment to being a responsible and industrious
worker, whatever the task may be. Donna is always ready to take on a
new challenge and for several years she was a member of the Fire
Response Team, a small group of volunteers trained in first aid and
Despite the difficulties in her life, Donna’s
attitude remains buoyed by hope. Not just the hope of being free, but
the hope of touching the lives of other victims and of taking down the
blue wall of silence one police family at a time.
If you are in an abusive relationship, please seek
Participating in support/therapy groups will give you the strength
within to emotionally break away from your abusive partner. If you
have gone back to your abuser, please know that it is “normal” to go
back. In time you will learn how to stay away from him emotionally
and physically. Don’t give up.
If you are a family member or friend of a victim
that makes excuses and goes back to the batterer, please know that
your support is vital.
Educating ourselves about the issues and statistics
relative to domestic violence will help us pass this information on to
the next generation. Our children need to learn that they have the
right to safe and abusive free lives.
Donna Yaklich #58751
Colorado Womens Correctional Facility
PO Box 500
Canon City, CO 81215-0500
Let me know if you would like for me to write you
back. If so, please be sure to provide a
legible return address.
Colorado Supreme Court
PEOPLE v. YAKLICH
833 P.2d 758 (1991)
The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado,
Donna YAKLICH, Defendant-Appellee.
Colorado Court of Appeals, Div. IV.
November 21, 1991.
Rehearing Denied January 9, 1992.
Certiorari Denied August 10, 1992.
G.F. Sandstrom, Jr., Dist. Atty., James S.
Whitmire, Asst. Dist. Atty., Pueblo, for plaintiff-appellant.
Law Office of Stanley H. Marks & Richard A.
Hostetler, Richard A. Hostetler, Denver, for defendant-appellee.
Opinion by Judge ROTHENBERG.
In this appeal, the People challenge the propriety
of several rulings made by the trial court during the jury trial of
defendant, Donna Yaklich, for the murder of her husband. We disapprove
two of the trial court's rulings and, in view of this, we find the
People's other arguments moot.
On December 12, 1985, Charles and Eddie Greenwell
shot and killed Yaklich's husband in the driveway of his home as he
stepped out of his truck. Yaklich was inside the house asleep.
After her husband's death, Yaklich received payment
under his three life insurance policies, and she admitted that she
paid the Greenwells $4,200 in several installments for murdering her
husband. Consequently, she was brought to trial on a charge of first
degree murder and conspiracy to murder under a theory that she had
been motivated to arrange her husband's death in order to obtain the
The defense, however, maintained that Yaklich
suffered from the "battered woman syndrome" and that her actions were
justifiable acts of self-defense and were committed under duress
resulting from years of physical and psychological battering by her
According to the defense, Yaklich lived in a
constant state of fear of her husband, and, at the time of his death,
she believed she was in imminent danger of being killed by him or
receiving great bodily injury from him. The defense also contended
that Yaklich believed and had reasonable grounds to believe that there
was a real or apparent necessity to act to avoid the imminent danger
of death or great bodily injury.
The defense presented expert and other testimony in
support of its battered woman theory. In contrast, the People's expert
witness gave her opinion that Donna Yaklich did not fit the profile of
a battered woman.
[ 833 P.2d 760 ]
At the close of the evidence, over the People's
objections, the trial court instructed the jury on Yaklich's
affirmative defenses of self-defense and duress. It also gave the jury
definitions of "imminent danger," "apparent necessity," and
"reasonable belief." The jury acquitted Yaklich of murder in the first
degree. However, it convicted her of conspiracy to commit murder in
the first degree, and the court sentenced her to forty years in
The central issue on appeal is whether a woman who
has hired a third party to kill her abuser but who presents evidence
that she suffered from the battered woman syndrome is entitled to a
self-defense instruction. We hold that a self-defense instruction is
not available in a contract-for-hire situation, even though the
accused presents credible evidence that she is a victim of the
battered woman syndrome. Accordingly, we disapprove the trial court's
ruling on that issue.
The General Assembly has codified the law of
self-defense at § 18-1-704, C.R.S. (1986 Repl.Vol. 8B). That statute
permits an individual to use deadly physical force against another if
the individual using deadly force reasonably believes that the other
individual has used or imminently will use unlawful life-threatening
force. See Hare v. People,800 P.2d 1317 (Colo. 1990).
"Imminent" has not been expressly defined by
statute or by Colorado case law in the context of self-defense. Cf.
People v. Brandyberry,812 P.2d 674 (Colo.App.1990) (in choice of evils
context, "imminent" means "near at hand, impending or on the point of
happening"). However, self-defense instructions are usually allowed
when an accused has been faced with a threat of great bodily injury or
death contemporaneously with the killing. See Hare v. People, supra
(instruction on self-defense proper where victim shot while he and
defendant struggled over gun); Beckett v. People,800 P.2d 74
(Colo.1990) (self-defense instruction proper where victim followed
defendant to defendant's car after an argument, and the defendant
reached into his car and pulled out a gun because he was afraid the
victim would harm him); People v. Jones,675 P.2d 9 (Colo.1984)
(self-defense instruction proper where victim hit defendant first).
Yaklich contends that in the context of a battered woman situation in
which the woman kills her abuser, "imminent" should be defined as:
"likely to happen without delay, threatening, menacing, or impending,
not immediate." Thus, according to Yaklich, a woman who kills her
abuser or, as here, who hires another to kill her abuser is
nevertheless entitled to a self-defense instruction even though she
was not threatened with harm contemporaneously with the killing.
This is a case of first impression in Colorado, and
in order to analyze and evaluate Yaklich's contention properly, it is
necessary to examine briefly the battered woman syndrome as it relates
to the issue of self-defense in Colorado.
The "battered woman syndrome" constitutes a series
of common characteristics that appear in women who are physically and
psychologically abused over an extended period of time by the dominant
male figure in their lives. (Although in rare circumstances, the
victim of "battered woman syndrome" may be a male, the literature
suggests that the vast majority of victims are women). See L. Walker,
The Battered Woman (1979) (The phrase "battered woman syndrome" was
originated by Dr. Walker). See also Eber, The Battered Wife's Dilemma:
To Kill Or To Be Killed, 32 Hastings L.J. 895 (1981); D. Martin,
Battered Wives (1976); State v. Kelly,97 N.J. 178, 478 A.2d 364
Numerous cases across the country have held that
the battered woman syndrome is "a recognized phenomenon in the
psychiatric profession and is defined as a technical term of art in
professional diagnostic textbooks." State v. Allery,101 Wn.2d 591, 682
P.2d 312 (1984); see State v. Norman,324 N.C. 253, 378 S.E.2d 8
[ 833 P.2d 761 ]
Studies in this area have revealed that in a
battering relationship, violence does not occur all the time. Rather,
there is a "cycle of violence" which has three phases: (1) a tension
building phase; (2) an acute battering phase; and (3) a tranquil and
loving phase. The cycle of violence is continually repeated until the
victim becomes unable to predict her own safety or the effect that her
behavior will have on the abuser. As a result, the woman is reduced to
a state of learned helplessness. L. Walker, The Battered Woman (1979);
L. Walker, Terrifying Love: Why Battered Women Kill and How Society
According to the testimony, one very important and
often misunderstood aspect of the battered woman syndrome is the fact
that many battered women cannot safely leave their abusive mates. See
Eber, The Battered Wife's Dilemma: To Kill or To Be Killed, supra. In
fact, abuse often escalates at the time of separation, and it is then
that battered women face the greatest danger of being murdered. Many
abusers have been known to pursue the women who leave them and subject
them to brutal attacks.
Additionally, battered women may not
psychologically or emotionally have the alternative of leaving the
abuser because of their low self-esteem, their emotional and economic
dependency, the absence of another place to go, and the woman's
legitimate fear of the abuser's response to her leaving. Thus,
according to the expert testimony, battered women become trapped in
their own fear and often feel that their only recourse is to kill the
batterer or be killed. See Brewer, Missouri's New Law on Battered
Spouse Syndrome: A Moral Victory, A Partial Solution, 33 St. Louis
U.L.J. 227 at 231 (1988). See also State v. Hundley,236 Kan. 461, 693
P.2d 475 (1985) ("This is a textbook case of the battered wife, which
is psychologically similar to hostage and prisoner of war cases.").
The battered woman syndrome is not in itself a
defense to the charge of assault or murder, that is, the existence of
the syndrome does not of itself establish the legal right of a woman
to kill her abuser. Rather, evidence of the battered woman syndrome
may, in certain circumstances, be considered in the context of
self-defense. See State v. Leidholm,334 N.W.2d 811 (N.D.1983). In
Crocker, The Meaning Of Equality for Battered Women Who Kill Men In
Self Defense, 8 Harv. Women's L.J. 121, 132-33 (1985), the author
Lay witnesses may establish the history of threats
and physical abuse experienced by the defendant. In situations where
the uninformed juror would not see any threat or impending danger,
expert witnesses help elucidate how a battering relationship generates
different perspectives of danger, imminence, and necessary force.
Expert testimony also attacks unstated stereotypic
assumptions by explaining why the defendant stayed in the
relationship, why she never sought help from police or friends, or why
she feared increased violence.... [J]urors on their own or encouraged
by the prosecution, may assume that the defendant stayed in the
abusive relationship because the abuse was not serious or because she
enjoyed it. Expert testimony demonstrates that women stay most often
because they cannot or are afraid to leave.
In the reported cases where battered women have
killed their abusers and have contended that they acted in
self-defense, one of three scenarios is generally present: (1) the
battered woman has killed her abuser at the time he was attacking her;
(2) the battered woman has killed her abuser during a lull in the
violence (such as while the abuser was sleeping); and (3) the battered
woman has hired a third party to kill her abuser.
In situations in which the battered woman has
killed her abuser at the moment of attack, virtually all jurisdictions
have held that the woman is entitled to a self-defense instruction.
See, e.g., State v. Hundley, supra.
[ 833 P.2d 762 ]
In situations in which the woman has killed her
abuser during a lull in the violence, there is a split of authority on
whether she is entitled to a self-defense instruction. A key factor in
the resolution of the issue has been the manner in which the
particular jurisdiction defines "imminent danger."
Jurisdictions which define imminent danger as
immediate danger have generally refused to allow a self-defense
instruction to a defendant in this battered woman situation. See
People v. Aris, 215 Cal.App.3d. 1178, 264 Cal.Rptr. 167 (1989)
(self-defense instruction not justified because battered wife was not
facing immediate peril when she shot and killed sleeping husband);
State v. Norman, supra (self-defense instruction refused where wife
shot and killed sleeping husband because, at the time of the killing,
wife was not confronted with an instantaneous choice between killing
husband and being killed); State v. Stewart, 243 Kan. 639, 763 P.2d
572 (1988) (self-defense instruction refused where wife shot sleeping
husband because there was no lethal threat to wife contemporaneous
with the killing).
Other jurisdictions have defined "imminent danger"
to mean something other than immediate danger and have held that a
battered woman who kills her abuser during a lull in the violence is
entitled to a self-defense instruction. See State v. Gallegos,104 N.M.
247, 719 P.2d 1268 (1986) (woman who shot and stabbed husband while he
was lying in bed was entitled to self-defense instruction); State v.
Allery, supra (self-defense instruction proper where battered wife
shot husband while he was lying on couch, despite absence of any
violent act immediately preceding shooting); State v. Leidholm, supra
(self-defense instruction justified where battered woman stabbed
husband while he slept).
No Colorado case has yet decided this issue.
We are aware of only three reported cases that
discuss the issue of whether to give a self-defense instruction under
circumstances in which the battered women have hired third parties to
kill their abusers. Two arose in the state of Missouri and one arose
in the state of Tennessee.
In State v. Anderson,785 S.W.2d 596 (Mo.App.1990),
a wife hired several men to kill her abusive husband. At her trial for
murder, the court refused to allow her expert to testify that she
suffered from the battered woman syndrome. On appeal, she contended
that the trial court erred in refusing to allow her to present expert
testimony supporting her self-defense claim and in refusing to
instruct the jury on self-defense.
The Missouri Court of Appeals rejected her
arguments and stated:
[T]he facts of the killing here do not support a
self-defense claim or use of the battered spouse syndrome. [Defendant]
hired or lured the killers into the crime. There was no evidence of
self-defense of assaults of the husband when he was shot. [Defendant]
had been talking for over three months prior to the murder about how
to have her husband killed, with payment to the assailants out of his
insurance proceeds. (emphasis added)
The Missouri court concluded that the woman did not
prove she was in immediate danger at the time her husband was killed
and, thus, failed to make a prima facie showing of self-defense. See
also State v. Martin,666 S.W.2d 895 (Mo.App.1984) (no error in
excluding evidence of battered spouse syndrome where wife hired hit
man to kill her abusive husband but failed to show she was in
immediate danger at the time he was killed); Mo.Rev.Stat. § 563.033
(Supp.1988); State v. Leaphart,673 S.W.2d 870 (Tenn.Crim.App.1983) (no
error in trial court's failure to give a self-defense instruction
where wife was not in immediate danger at time husband was killed by
hired killers). See generally Brewer, 33 St. Louis L.J., supra.
In summary, Yaklich contends that when a murder
defendant presents evidence
[ 833 P.2d 763 ]
that she meets the criteria of being a battered
woman and raises self-defense as her theory of the case, she is then
entitled to a self-defense instruction. She further contends that
"imminent" danger is not limited to immediate danger but should be
defined more broadly as: "likely to happen without delay, impending,
[but] not immediate." Thus, according to Yaklich, the trial court
properly instructed the jury.
However, even if we were to adopt Yaklich's
definition of imminent, we still would not agree that a self-defense
instruction is available in a contract-for-hire case for three
reasons. First, to our knowledge, no jurisdiction in the country has
held that a battered woman is entitled to a self-defense instruction
in a murder-for-hire case, no matter how the jurisdiction has defined
Secondly, a self-defense instruction in a
murder-for-hire situation would undermine ancient notions of
self-defense which originated in the common law and were later
codified in Colorado law. See § 18-1-704. As the North Carolina
Supreme Court has stated: "The killing of another human being is the
most extreme recourse to our inherent right of self-preservation and
can be justified in law only by the utmost real or apparent necessity
brought about by the decedent...." State v. Norman, supra.
Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that Yaklich's
participation in the death of her husband was not merely peripheral.
Had it not been for Yaklich, the Greenwells would not have been
involved in this murder. Thus, in our view, we would be establishing
poor public policy if Yaklich were to escape punishment by virtue of
an unprecedented application of self-defense while the Greenwells were
convicted of murder.
We recognize that the alternatives available to
battered women have proven "tragically inadequate" in many cases,
People v. Aris, supra, and in reaching this conclusion, we do not
minimize the dangers that battered women face. Nevertheless, we
conclude that the result reached reasonably balances an individual's
inherent and time honored right of self-preservation with the great
value our society places on human life.
Here, the uncontroverted evidence was that Yaklich
approached several people about having her husband killed and that she
met with Eddie Greenwell several times over an eight-month period. She
paid the Greenwells after they killed her husband, and, at the time
the contract killing was performed by the Greenwells, she was in her
We therefore hold that under either the People's or
Yaklich's definition of "imminent," Yaklich's evidence, even if taken
as true, was insufficient as a matter of law to support her theory
that she was in imminent danger at the time her husband was killed.
Therefore, the trial court erred in giving a self-defense instruction
to the jury. See People v. Banks,804 P.2d 203 (Colo.App.1990) (a
defendant is entitled to an instruction embodying her theory of the
case only if there is some evidence to support it). See also People v.
Garcia,690 P.2d 869 (Colo.App.1984).
In light of this conclusion, we need not address
the People's additional contention that the trial court improperly
instructed the jury on the definitions of "imminent danger," "apparent
necessity," or "reasonable belief."
The People next contend that the trial court erred
in submitting an instruction to the jury on the affirmative defense of
duress because Yaklich did not act "at the direction of another
person" when she hired the Greenwells to kill her husband. Again we
At the time Yaklich's husband was killed, the
duress statute did not require a person to act "at the direction of
another person" in order to establish the defense of duress. See §
18-1-708, C.R.S. (1986 Repl.Vol. 8B). Nevertheless, the case law
required such a condition to exist. See People v. Maes, 41 Colo.App.
75, 583 P.2d 942 (1978).
Here, since there was no testimony that Yaklich
acted "at the direction of another person," we disapprove the trial
court's ruling giving a duress instruction.
[ 833 P.2d 764 ]
Finally, the People contend that the trial court
erred by allowing defense counsel in his opening statement to refer to
evidence relating to the battered woman syndrome, to self-defense, to
Yaklich's husband's reputation for violence, and to his use of
steroids; and that the court further erred in allowing the
cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and the presentation of
defense witnesses regarding these matters. However, in view of our
rulings above, these contentions are moot.
The trial court's rulings allowing a self-defense
instruction and a duress instruction are disapproved.
STERNBERG, C.J., and HUME, J., concur.