When Shellye L. Stark gunned down her husband in an early-morning confrontation, she was reacting to a marriage so rife with abuse that she suffered from a clinical disorder called battered women’s syndrome, the disorder’s leading researcher said Thursday.
“The pattern of abuse was very severe,” said Dr. Lenore Walker, a national expert on domestic violence. “…Her plan might have been naive, but I think the learned helplessness may not have allowed her to think it through.”
Walker, a self-described feminist psychologist who’s testified at hundreds of trials, interviewed Stark in fall 2008, more than nine months after the Dec. 9, 2007, death of Dale Robert Stark, 48, in the South Hill home he shared with the couple’s teenage son.
The first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder trial of Stark, 47, lasted past 8 p.m. Thursday in Spokane County Superior Court to accommodate testimony from the Florida-based professor, a key witness to Stark’s self-defense claim.
Walker’s testimony followed a detailed description by Stark of abuses she says were suffered at the hands of her husband, whom she says forced her into prostitution to support his gambling habit and beat and sexually abused her regularly.
There were periods of peace, she said, including when she earned a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University in 2000 and taught math and science for a year at Garry Middle School in Spokane.
She told the jury of two assaults by Stark that she says killed two babies, including a girl named Nikita – a name she said Dale later made her take on as a moniker while a prostitute. That was in 2006; she told the jury Wednesday she’d worked in the industry since the first part of her marriage.
But about halfway into 2007, she met Brian Moore on a Web site devoted to prostitution and started a relationship, she said Thursday.
“I was able to meet sincere and genuine people,” she said, describing Moore as an “astute man when it came to me – he saw me as a woman who did not want to be doing what I was doing.”
Moore, who was listed as a state witness but couldn’t be located to serve a subpoena, had a business that helped women escape prostitution, Stark said.
His help led her to travel to Spokane from California to rework what she said was an unfair marriage settlement. Stark said she planned to move her things from the home at 1620 S. Maple Street. Dale Stark didn’t like that and began threatening to kill her and to tell her family that she was a prostitute, Shellye Stark said.
She decided to preempt him and broke the news to her family in the days before the killing.
She planned to cook dinner with her sister, Stark said, and she’d been chopping onions with a knife Dec. 7 when she learned her sister had hit a moose on Highway 2 and was in the hospital. She returned the next day, hours before Dale Stark arrived and reached for the same knife after learning of the restraining order, Shellye Stark said.
She told the jury he was charging at her with a look of rage that she recognized from years of beatings.
“It was not a walk. It was not a run,” Stark said. “He was charging at me.”
In a heated cross examination from Deputy Prosecutor Mark Cipolla, Stark left unanswered the question of how her husband of 23 years had bullet wounds in his back if she shot him as he charged her.
“Because that’s where the bullets landed, Mr. Cipolla,” Stark said.
She said she barely remembers firing the gun and had no idea how many bullets hit her husband.
The defense is using Walker’s testimony to explain why Stark fired the final bullet into her husband’s leg after he collapsed on the floor from four bullet wounds.
She said under questioning from defense lawyer Russell Bradshaw that all she remembers was her husband moving toward her on the ground as she tried walking past him to get to the front door.
“I wanted him to just go,” she said. “I never meant to kill him.”
What some may see as an overreaction to a threat is a common reaction from a woman who suffers from battered women’s syndrome, Walker said.
“She had trauma triggers that increased her level of fear,” Walker said. “…In my opinion, she was terrified of him.”
The case will likely be in the jury’s hands by Tuesday afternoon.