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Hot oil treatment trial slated to start Monday

Lying in bed, the smell of cooking oil wafting in from the kitchen, Michael Ndaradzi thought his girlfriend was cooking a conciliatory breakfast after an argument the day before.

So begins the tale prosecutors are expected to lay out in Montgomery County court today at the start of the assault trial of Thembisile Maseko, who is accused of carrying scalding oil into the bedroom and tossing it on Ndaradzi. He suffered blistering burns to his face, torso and left arm, and by the time officers arrived, parts of his skin were peeling off, according to police reports.

But Maseko's attorney, in pretrial court filings, has presented a defense that is just as unsettling: Maseko’s actions that day were governed by years of abuse that resulted in a condition called Battered Woman's Syndrome.

"She became significantly depressed and felt intimidated, helpless and powerless," an evaluating psychiatrist wrote on Dec. 16. "The incident occurred in the context of these dynamics."

The trial is expected to last at least four days. Prosecutors would like jurors to concentrate on what police and the burn victim say happened the morning of July 6, when officers were called to a report of domestic violence inside an apartment on Crystal Rock Drive in Germantown.

"Ndaradzi was visibly shaking and covered with oil," police wrote.

The officers found Maseko, a dental assistant, in an apartment downstairs. She initially told them Ndaradzi choked and attacked her in the kitchen, so she picked up a pan of hot oil and threw it at him, according to police reports. But the story fell apart when officers started looking around, according to the reports.

In the kitchen they found no oil spots, but in the bedroom they found oil on the walls, ceiling and bed linens. Maseko was charged with first-degree assault and reckless endangerment.

Ndaradzi underwent multiple skin grafts, and still wears a body compression suit to treat his injuries, according to prosecutors. He is expected to testify.

Prosecutors and defense attorney Barbara Graham still are arguing about whether Graham will be able to present expert witnesses on Battered Woman’s Syndrome. That debate is expected to continue at a pretrial hearing today.

Graham wants to call to the witness stand Ellen G. McDaniel, who evaluated Maseko on Nov. 24 for six hours. According to a summery of that evaluation, Maseko was born in South Africa, where she suffered abuse growing up. She excelled academically, cleaned and cooked for her siblings, competed in beauty pageants, and eventually came to the U.S. to pursue an au pair position, McDaniel wrote.

Maseko met Ndaradzi in 2006, and the next year they had a son together. Also in 2007, Ndaradzi slapped and assaulted her, abuse that continued, according to McDaniel’s report. On July 2, 2009, Ndaradzi became violent, and it lasted on and off for four days, according to the report.

"Ms. Maseko said she could not stop crying and told Mr. Ndaradzi he had to leave," McDaniel wrote. "He did not respond and Ms. Maseko said she went into the kitchen to distract herself by cooking. She returned to the bedroom where Mr. Ndaradzi was and told him again he had to leave. She had the cup of oil in her hand. Mr. Ndaradzi started insulting her but then noticed the cup. He 'jumped out of bed' and tried to get the cup. Ms. Maseko felt overpowered and as he began pulling the cup away from her, she let go of it. The oil spattered, hitting Mr. Ndaradzi."

There's a problem with that defense, according to prosecutors, who say you can't advance Battered Woman's Syndrome, also called Battered Spouse Syndrome, and unintentional behavior at the same time.

"The Battered Spouse Syndrome is intended to allow a criminal defendant to introduce otherwise irrelevant historical evidence to explain the defendant’s state of mind at the time he or she committed the crime," prosecutors Teresa Casafranca and Jessica Hall wrote recently. "If a defendant, such as this defendant, does not agree that he or she acted intentionally, then there is no factual foundation for self-defense."

By Dan Morse  |  January 4, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Dan Morse , From the Courthouse , Montgomery  
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