D.C. Circuit vacates extortion conviction; trial counsel should have introduced evidence of battered-woman syndrome

United States v. Nwoye, No. 14-3060 (D.C. Cir. June 10, 2016).

A woman named Queen Nwoye had a liaison with a married doctor. After the relationship ended amicably, Nwoye’s new boyfriend urged her to lure the doctor into a meeting by claiming that she wanted to renew the affair. The doctor took the bait, and the boyfriend took photos of the two in flagrante delicto. Nwoye and the boyfriend then used the photos to blackmail the doctor out of $185,000, until the doctor finally contacted the FBI. 

Nwoye was charged with extortion. She asked the district court to give the jury a duress instruction, saying that her boyfriend had abused her and threatened to kill her if she didn’t cooperate in the blackmail. The district court refused to give the instruction. On direct appeal, a split panel of the D.C. Circuit affirmed because Nwoye hadn’t shown that her boyfriend had threatened her with imminent death or serious injury. The court noted that Nwoye hadn’t introduced any expert testimony on battered-woman syndrome. 

Now, in this collateral challenge, Nwoye argues that her legal representation at trial was ineffective because counsel didn’t seek to present any expert testimony on battered-woman syndrome (now called battered-person syndrome). This syndrome, well-established enough to have its own ICD code, imbues its sufferers with learned helplessness, robbing them of the ability to escape abuse. 

Another split panel of the D.C. Circuit today holds that Nwoye’s counsel was ineffective. Battered-woman syndrome can support a claim of duress by showing that a reasonable person in the defendant’s shoes would have felt no choice but to accede to the batterer’s demands. That’s what expert testimony could have done here—it could have supported a duress instruction by showing that a reasonable person in Nwoye’s circumstances would have felt in imminent danger if she hadn’t participated in the blackmail scheme. Trial counsel fell below a constitutional minimum by failing to introduce expert testimony, and this failure prejudiced Nwoye’s case by depriving her of a good defense. Judge Sentelle dissents.

One interesting procedural wrinkle: Nwoye is not in prison, and, in fact, not even on supervised release. Her collateral challenge thus takes the form not of a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 petition, but of a petition for a writ of coram nobis