Barbara Sheehan admits that in February 2008, she killed her husband by shooting him 11 times with two guns. The prosecution argues that Sheehan committed a planned execution. However, in a case that's drawing national attention to domestic violence, Sheehan claims that her actions were justified because her husband would have murdered her if she hadn't killed him first.
Sheehan's trial started last week, and her lawyer says that in the coming days her two adult children will testify that she suffered years of severe abuse from their father Raymond Sheehan, a former police sergeant from Queens, New York. The New York Times reports that Raymond is accused of smashing his wife's head against a cinder-block wall during a vacation in Jamaica, throwing boiling pasta sauce at her, and frequently telling her that he could easily kill her and cover it up.
According to the Queens Chronicle, Barbara's lawyer says that the night before the killing, Raymond punched Barbara in the face and kicked her out of the house because she refused to go on at trip to Florida. When she came back, he made her change their reservations from a town where relatives lived to a place where no one knew them "with a gun to her head." She didn't think she'd come back from the trip alive, so she tried to escape. From the Times:
Michael G. Dowd, Ms. Sheehan's lawyer, told the jury that on the day of the shooting, Ms. Sheehan took her husband's loaded revolver as she tried to sneak out of the house after a fierce argument the evening before. But he said that Mr. Sheehan, who was in the bathroom, tried to stop her, grabbing a semiautomatic pistol he had placed atop the bathroom vanity and pointing it at her.
Mr. Dowd said Ms. Sheehan then fired, shooting her husband five times. Mr. Dowd said Mr. Sheehan, covered in blood, fell to the tile floor, screaming, "I'm going to kill you!" Then, as Mr. Sheehan reached for the pistol after it had fallen to the floor, Ms. Sheehan grabbed it from him and shot him an additional six times, Mr. Dowd said.
Prosecutors say that the killing wasn't a justifiable homicide because Raymond Sheehan was shaving when he was shot, not presenting an immediate threat to Barbara's life. Prosecutor Debra Pomodore says, "Barbara Sheehan didn't fear Raymond Sheehan. She despised him," — as if the two are mutually exclusive. Raymond Sheehan's friends have come to his defense, arguing that he clearly wasn't an abusive monster because,
... "He appeared to be a devoted father who was frequently seen by his wife's side in church, and who also worked with youth teams at his children's school. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he helped sift through the rubble at ground zero, they said."
Now that we know abusers behave violently in every area of their lives, they should be easier to spot.
The case is the latest test of the "battered-woman defense," which has been used in court to explain why victims of domestic violence don't leave their abuser. Prosecutors often argue that the victims of domestic violence have opportunities to leave their abuser and get help. In general, that shows little people understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship. As for Sheehan's case, the reasons she was unable to leave are unusually clear. According to her lawyer, Raymond threatened to kill their children and her family members and said, "You call the police, who are they going to believe - me or you?"
In several recent cases, the defense has argued that the murder of an abuser was justified, but Holly Maguigan, a law professor at New York University Law School who specializes in abuse cases, says that women who kill their abusive husband are usually convicted at the same rate as other people accused of murder. People have come to understand domestic violence more in the past few decades, and Maguigan says they're more likely to recognize that sometimes abuse victims, "have no choice to kill or be killed." Yet, "juries still can have a hard time understanding how a wife can kill her husband when she is supposed to be the cool-headed and nurturing one." On average, three women are murdered by their partners every day in the U.S., but for some reason it's still difficult to comprehend that many people in abusive relationships constantly fear for their lives, even in moments when they aren't being physically attacked.
Murder Trial Hinges On Questions Of Domestic Abuse [NYT]
In A Murder Trial, Two Portraits Are Painted [Queens Chronicle]
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