By Tanya Brannan
WeNews news analyst
Thursday, October 20, 2011
The murder trial of a N.Y. policeman's abused wife drew California attorney Tanya Brannan across the country to witness a milestone case. She wonders if more expert testimony might have helped win more leniency for Barbara Sheehan.
QUEENS, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)--The jury of nine women and three men who recently decided not to convict Barbara Sheehan of murder had no doubt about who'd killed Raymond Sheehan, a retired New York police sergeant, on Feb. 8, 2008.
Barbara Sheehan had openly admitted discharging the bullets into his body.
But what drove her to that act made her case closely watched by advocates for battered women--including myself--who have been pushing the courts to recognize the "kill or be killed" alternative facing some victims of long-term and severe domestic violence.
Barbara Sheehan said she had endured two decades of sadistic violence and abuse at the hands of her husband, with near-constant threats to kill her and her family, as news outlets across the country--including Women's eNews--have widely reported.
According to her testimony, on that rainy February morning Raymond Sheehan pointed a gun at her head and said "You're not going anywhere or I will fucking kill you, kill everybody and go down in glory."
"I knew he was going to kill me right then," Barbara Sheehan testified in the Queens, N.Y., courtroom.
While the prosecutor portrayed her as a cold-blooded, murderous liar, the jury decided otherwise, leaving the case open for analysis about what swayed the jury to see her side of the story.
One highly contested issue was whether expert testimony on "battered woman syndrome" would be allowed.
Battered woman syndrome--sometimes also called "battered woman defense"--gives the defense a way of educating a jury as to why a reasonable woman would feel she was in a life and death situation with no way out but homicide.
The original judge in the case ruled it out and an appeal by the defense was denied.
Only with the recent assignment of Judge Barry Kron to the case was such expert testimony allowed into the trial. But Kron imposed some crucial limits on how much Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University, could say.
Campbell's studies of domestic violence homicide led her to create the pre-eminent danger-lethality assessment for women in battering situations. But she wasn't allowed to assess Sheehan, or even to enumerate the factors that would indicate a situation that was likely to end in homicide.
Instead, she could only present generic testimony on the cycle of violence and the concept of "learned helplessness," which leads women whose every attempt at escape has been thwarted begin to believe that escape is impossible.
It was a discussion of the more-or-less common wisdom on why women don't leave, why they don't call law enforcement, why they lie to family and medical professionals about how they sustained their injuries. As such, it was an analysis of what's wrong with the battered woman – not the batterer – that puts her in a situation of kill-or-be-killed.
What was excluded by the court in Barbara Sheehan's defense was much more important.
Of the 20 or so indicators of lethality in a battering relationship Campbell wasn't allowed to mention, nearly all were present in Barbara Sheehan's situation in the year preceding the shooting. The escalating violence, threats to kill, presence of guns, his talk of suicide, his use of choking and complete control of her daily acts all confirmed the likelihood of what Barbara Sheehan knew to be true – that her time was running out.
Also excluded was the effect of Raymond Sheehan's employment in law enforcement and Barbara Sheehan's ability to report the abuse.
Few "civilians" can conceive of the complexity of the hostage situation domestic violence represents for women whose intimate partners are police officers.
How do you call the police when he is the police? When he's told you again and again that if you jeopardize his job you're dead?
How is your fear increased by the fact that he always carries guns and is licensed to kill? That his training makes him an expert in control and forced compliance? That he knows how to injure without leaving marks and to stage a crime scene?
Where do you escape to when he has access to battered women's shelters and every imaginable form of tracking and surveillance?
The jury didn't hear that when police officers' partners do report, almost without exception police agencies protect not the complainant, but the officer.
Often he has already laid the groundwork with his fellow officers that she is the problem and he is the victim. She's a liar; she's crazy; she's a drug addict or vengeful or trying to get custody of the children. The result is that if his fellow officers ever respond to a domestic violence call at his house, they are predisposed to discount everything they see and hear except what their brother officer tells them.
Police agencies usually handle complaints of officer-involved domestic violence informally and internally, according to statistics provided by the National Center for Women in Policing, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Rarely is a criminal investigation even conducted; and even when officers are found guilty of domestic violence, discipline is "exceedingly light," with counseling as the most frequent consequence.
Allegations of domestic violence rarely show up in the officers' performance evaluations, and those officers are often promoted, many only a short time after the allegations.
The jury was allowed to hear none of this but only the oft-repeated "cycle of violence" and an analysis of the victim that paints her as pathological rather than him.
The jury reportedly had a tough time coming together to arrive at what appears to have been a compromise verdict--not guilty of murder but guilty of the illegal possession of a gun.
I suspect it would have been much easier for them if they'd heard some of the testimony Campbell wasn't allowed to give.
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Tanya Brannan is an attorney and founder of Purple Berets, a California grassroots women's rights group. She is currently documenting the voices of women whose abusers are law enforcement officers.
In Defense of Barbara Sheehan:
National Center for Women and Policing:
Battered Mothers Custody Conference: