Three and a half years after Barbara Sheehan fired 11 bullets into her husband Raymond, she is a free woman.
Sheehan's court case, which ended on Thursday with a jury exonerating her of second-degree murder charges, illustrated the legal recourse available to women who defend themselves against domestic violence with lethal means. Sheehan relied on what is known is the battered women's defense, contending that years of abuse culminated with her husband pointing a gun at her head.
He was picking up the gun and aiming it at me, Sheehan testified at her trial. He said, 'I'm going to f--king kill you. I took the gun I had in my hand and shot him before he shot me.
Michael Dowd, Sheehan's lawyer, has made a career of defending women who kill their tormentors. In a 1991 paper discussing the battered women's defense, he wrote about the difficulties of surmounting the skepticism that women in such cases face.
The denial of the equality of women in cultures which perceive such treatment as both acceptable and lawful is essential to the existence of domestic violence, Dowd wrote. This denial is the cornerstone of men's violence against women and ultimately operates to deny battered women a fair trial when they are successful in fighting back against their abusers.
In Sheehan's case, the jurors were swayed by harrowing accounts of how her husband would relentlessly beat her. Sheehan and her children recounted Raymond having thrown a pot of boiling pasta sauce on her, or slamming her head into a cinder block wall. In the context of that history, Sheehan's claim that she was acting to avoid immediate harm became plausible.
We believed she was justified with all the things she went through over the years, jury forewoman Barbara Fleisher said.
It is not easy for battered women to obtain such verdicts. The fact that the defendant remained in the relationship, rather than fleeing or seeking help, can work against her. Prosecutors will often ask whether the defendant reported the abuse or told anybody.
Anything a woman does or doesn't do is going to be used against her. If it was so bad there, why didn't she leave? Sue Osthoff, the director of the nonprofit National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, told the Associated Press. What we still find after all this time ... is the only correct woman in a situation claiming self-defense is a dead one.
New York state law justifies lethal force in the case of immediate threat to life, and there is debate over what constitutes such a threat and whether a woman can be justified in killing her abuser at a time other than during a beating. Kit Kinports, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, argued in a law review article that women could be acting reasonably even in cases where the woman kills the husband while he sleeps given the sustained threat of violence.
At least half of the women who leave their abusers are followed and harassed or further attacked by them, Kinports wrote, arguing that some women who cannot simply leave can only defend themselves by resorting to violence.
Convincing jurors that the situation is that perilous can be difficult, Holly Maguigan, a law professor at New York University Law School who specializes in abuse case, told the AP.
People who haven't been through it don't understand it, she said. We like to think that home is safe.