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United States v. Sebresos

filed: July 22, 1992.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
BARBARA LEE SEBRESOS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii. D.C. No. 89-01123. Samuel Conti, District Judge, Presiding.

Before: Tang, Pregerson, And Ferguson, Circuit Judges

MEMORANDUM

Barbara Lee Sebresos appeals her conviction following a guilty plea to charges stemming from an embezzlement scheme. She contends that the district court erroneously excluded testimony offered to support a duress defense and a state of mind defense. We affirm the district court's decision to bar the evidence proffered in support of the duress defense, but reverse the decision to exclude expert testimony on her inability to form the requisite specific intent.

BACKGROUND

From 1983 through 1987, defendant's husband, Leonard Sebresos, was the financial secretary of Local Asbestos Union 132. Barbara Sebresos worked, largely without pay, as the secretary and bookkeeper. During this time she embezzled about $130,000 from the union. The government charged her with fifteen counts, including mail fraud, embezzlement, false entries, false statement and tax evasion. Sebresos planned to introduce expert and lay testimony on the battered spouse or spouse abuse syndrome (SAS) as evidence for her duress defense which the government sought to exclude.

The district court granted the government's motion in limine on the basis that defendant's proffer did not satisfy the legal requirements for a duress defense. Sebresos then entered a conditional plea of guilty, which the court set aside when her expert testified that she lacked the intent to commit the crime. When the case again was set for trial, the government filed another motion to exclude the SAS testimony on her duress defense. The district court again granted the motion in limine as to all the expert and lay testimony. Sebresos then entered another conditional guilty plea.

At the second sentencing hearing, Barbara presented evidence that Leonard was the primary beneficiary of all embezzled funds and that he physically and mentally abused her and controlled her. Dr. Ginandes, defendant's expert, again testified. Sebresos was sentenced to imprisonment for two years on the embezzlement charge and probation for all other counts. She is presently out on bail.

Sebresos raises two issues on appeal.*fn1 She argues that (1) the court erred in refusing to admit evidence, other than her own testimony, of the spouse abuse syndrome to establish a coercion or duress defense; and (2) the district court erred in refusing to allow the admission of expert testimony regarding her state of mind.

Discussion

A. Exclusion of Spouse Abuse Syndrome Evidence on the Issue of Duress.

The district court's Conclusion that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to support a duress defense is subject to de novo review. United States v. Charmley, 764 F.2d 675, 676 (9th Cir. 1985).

The requirements of a coercion or duress defense are (1) an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury, (2) a wellgrounded fear that the threat will be carried out, and (3) no reasonable opportunity to escape the threatened harm. United States v. Contento-Pachon, 723 F.2d 691, 693 (9th Cir. 1984).

The spouse abuse or battered woman syndrome

generally refers to common characteristics appearing in women who are physically and psychologically abused by their mates. The typical pattern of violence consists of three recurrent phases of abuse: a tension-building stage, characterized by minor abuse; an acute battering stage, characterized by uncontrollable explosions of brutal violence; and a loving respite stage, characterized by calm and loving behavior of the batterer, coupled with pleas for forgiveness. The continued cycle of violence and contrition results in the battered woman living in a state of learned helplessness. Because she is financially dependent on the batterer, she may feel partly responsible for the batterer's ...


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