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Barbara Sheehan Acquitted in Shooting Death of Husband - Battered Woman's Syndrome Tested

Over the Labor Day weekend, I was catching up on my reading online and came across a story that caught my interest.  The news wasn’t new, the story was about 52 year old Barbara Sheehan who in June of this year began serving a five year prison sentence for a gun possession charge.  Sheehan was a mother of two, a secretary and was married to retired NYPD Sgt. Raymond Sheehan.  After seeing a photo of this woman, who looks like the average American mother – I was curious about the gun possession charge so I read on.  What I found surprised me.  Sheehan had been acquitted of second degree murder after shooting her husband 11 times and killing him on February 8, 2008.  Acquitted of murder, but convicted on gun possession?  My curiosity drove me to look up this case, the trial and find out what happened with Barbara & Raymond Sheehan.

Turns out that Barbara Sheehan admitted to killing her husband, shooting him more than 11 times with two of his guns while he was shaving in the bathroom of their home – but she successfully argued that she shot him in self defense, and utilized the battered wife’s syndrome to demonstrate her fear that had she not killed him, he would have killed her.  The case was interesting in that her attorneys were able to demonstrate that over the course of their marriage Raymond Sheehan had been increasingly physically abusive towards her – allegations that were confirmed and corroborated by Sheehan’s two adult children who testified at trial for the defense.  It can’t be easy for spouses of law enforcement to report incidents of domestic violence.  Think Drew Peterson….Kathleen Savio’s many calls to police about threats from Drew brought little action from responding officers. 

The prosecution painted Barbara Sheehan as a liar who killed her husband in cold blood.  The original judge in Sheenans trial would not allow expert witness testimony on battered woman’s syndrome, however a new judge was assigned to the trial and he did allow in limited testimony from Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor and researcher from John Hopkins University.  Campbell’s studies about domestic violence homicides led her to create the pre-eminent danger-lethality assessment for women in battering situations.  Campbell was not allowed to assess Sheehan, instead, she was only allowed to present generic testimony on the cycle of violence and the “learned helplessness” that leads women to believe that escaping their situation is not possible.  It was mostly a discussion on why women often times do not report abuse to law enforcement, medical professionals, and hide it from family and friends. 

Campbell was not allowed to tell the jury that of the 20 or so indicators on the danger-lethality assessment, nearly all were present in the Sheehans’ relationship in the year prior to the killing.  The escalating violence and threats to kill, the presence of guns in their home and his talk of suicide combined with his need to completely control every aspect of her life were all signs that her time may be running out.  Other testimony that was excluded from her trial was the effects of Raymond Sheehan’s employment in law enforcement – something that surely would have been a factor on her willingness or ability to feel safe in reporting domestic violence.  This could understandably be an issue for women who depend on their husband’s income for support of the family, fearing the loss of employment would lead to loss in sole support of an entire family.  This wasn’t the case here, but it’s another aspect that effects reporting of domestic violence.

The jury also did not hear the statistics that in many cases when an officer’s spouse makes an allegation of domestic violence, “almost without exception” the officer and not the complainant is protected.  According to statistics provided by the National Center for Women in Policing, police agencies usually handle officer involved complaints of domestic violence internally and informally.  They further stated that when a report is made, criminal investigations are rarely conducted and punishment is “exceedingly light”, with counseling the most frequent recommended course of action.  Even more frightening, reports of domestic violence rarely end up in an officer’s employment file – and they are often times promoted, many only a short time after the allegations are made.  Sounds to me like these reports are buried, not taken seriously or simply vanish. 

After reading about all of the information and testimony the Sheehan jury WAS NOT allowed to hear, they did hear from the couple’s 21 year old son, Raymond.  On the witness stand, Raymond broke down in tears when he read something he wrote when he was 14 years old and found out his father had a girlfriend. The Assistant District Attorney had to finish reading the entry for Raymond, in which he professed his anger towards his father and the mistress he discovered by accident when he intercepted an e-mail between the two.  He wrote “my whole life has changed…I’m never going to trust him again”.  The prosecutor was quick to ask why the young man failed to document the beatings his mother took at the hands of his father in his writings.  Raymond replied “that doesn’t mean it never happened”.  Raymond Sheehan left for college in Connecticut because he could no longer stand to be around his father.  He went on to be the second string quarterback of the Sacred Heart University football team in Fairfield.  He admitted that during his senior year in high school, his family life was so bad he considered taking his own life.

The Sheehan’s daughter, 25 year old Jennifer Sheehan also testified on behalf of her mother.  When the prosecutor asked how many times she witnessed her father abusing her mother, she said “millions of times, it happened every day”.  She recalled her father throwing food on the ceiling and floor when her mother cooked something he didn’t like.  She also told jurors about an incident that occurred during her 21st birthday party – when her father told her she had to move out of their house.  He then stood outside and threw rocks at their home.  Barbara Sheehan’s hands shook visibly at times during her testimony, as she recounted painful memories of her husband calling her “stupid, fat, a horrible mother” and knocking her down, kicking her, choking her and spitting in her face. 

The trial was held in September of 2011, more than 3 years after the killing.  Assistant DA Deborah Pomodore prosecuted the case and told the jury that Sheehan killed her husband out of pure hatred.  They described her as a “deeply unhappy wife who resented her sexless marriage and was now grossly exaggerating what she calls decades of physical abuse.  The trial called national attention to the issue of self defense in domestic violence cases, as the defense argued Barbara Sheehan killed her husband after years of abuse and after he pointed a loaded pistol at her.  Sheehan chronicled the events which included her husband throwing scalding hot pasta sauce in her face, banging her head against the wall and smashing her in the head with a phone receiver when she tried to call 911 for help.  Pomodore tried to shed an entirely different light on the marriage, calling her accounts of events into question and was highly skeptical of the abuse claims.  The prosecutor called Sheehan a “feisty and assertive woman” who was clumsy and accident prone, and even suggested some of her injuries were self inflicted.   Pomodore tried to point out inconsistencies in Sheehans’ statements, pointing to a December 2007 call to a domestic violence hot line in which Sheehan said there had been no physical abuse.  She also suggested Sheehan played up being the victim during media interviews. In the state of New York, self defense laws justify the use of lethal force in response to an immediate threat to life.  Pomodore claims this simply was not the case.  Many legal experts considered this to be a prime case to test the battered woman syndrome defense.

Sheehan testified about an incident that occurred while the family was on vacation in Jamaica when her husband banged her head against a cinder block wall in August of 2007.  After killing her husband in 2008, Sheehan told Good Morning America that he cracked her head open during the Jamaica trip.  During another interview on the Oprah Winfrey Show, she said the injury required stitches from her forehead to the back of the head.  Pomodore tried to capitalize on what she called inconsistencies and exaggerations of the Jamaica event.  Sheehan’s children backed up her story about the injuries and fighting that occurred during that trip.  Sheehan claimed the pair got into a heated argument before she killed him because she refused to go on a trip to Florida with him.  He was shaving when she shot him, although he had a loaded gun on the counter nearby and within reach. 

The defense brought an arsenal of potentially embarrassing accusations of their own to trial.  The most shocking revelation was that Mr. Sheehan was a sexual deviant who forced his wife to watch as he put on adult diapers, women’s dresses or ladies tights and masturbated in front of her.  Pomodore attempted to diffuse the allegations by stating that Sheehan was a willing participant in the role-playing games and suggested she enjoyed being a “dominatrix” while her husband took on the role of a baby.  Yeah, you heard this correctly – I had to read it several times to make sure I got it all right!  Pomodore cited an advertisement in which the Sheehan’s were seeking another couple to engage in other role-playing games with.  Barbara Sheehan called the ad “disgusting”, and said that she was repulsed by her husbands behavior and claims they hadn’t had sexual relations in 10 years.

The jury certainly had much to consider when they retired to begin deliberations.  Sheehan had many supporters in the community and in the courtroom, and many people felt the case should not have even been prosecuted.  I tend to think that anytime someone is shot 11 times, there has to be a thorough investigation and a trial.  Sheehan may have been the victim of abuse, she may have felt she had no way out of the marriage with the exception of being killed or killing her husband – but it should be for a jury to decide.  11 gunshots seems to be more than one would need to stop any perceived danger.  These cases are tough, and I don’t know what I would have decided if I were a juror on this case.  This particular jury had a hard time reaching a consensus – they deadlocked at first, unable to reach an unanimous decision. They ultimately acquitted her of murder.  Despite not hearing much of the expert witness testimony and a lot of other evidence the judge wouldn’t allow in, they took the testimony of the couple’s two adult children seriously.  They were the witnesses to the horrors their mother endured at the hands of their father – a member of law enforcement, who was supposed to protect and serve the community and protect his family, not terrorize them.


The jury acquitted her of murder, but they found her guilty of a gun violation?  She was sentenced to 5 years in prison for gun possession.  I don’t get it.  The jury decided the shooting was justified, so why the gun conviction?  Yes, she shot him with his own weapons – registered to her husband.  I don’t think she had time to get a gun permit while he was threatening to kill her and her children that February morning in 2008.  Was this a compromise verdict of some kind?  Who knows.  Sometimes verdicts don’t make sense.  The public seems to believe Sheehan was justified in shooting her husband to death.  While I don’t feel killing somebody is the appropriate way out of a marriage, I guess there are those situations that are so dangerous, so volatile – where the person feels it’s the ONLY way out. It’s sad, any way you look at it.

Comments

  1. Great article. Very interesting case. I don't get the gun violation charge either. Compromised verdict rings about right.

    ReplyDelete

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