By Susan V. Stromberg
Monday, July 12, 2010
Barbara Sheehan will soon be on trial in New York for the murder of her husband, a former police officer she says consistently abused her. A key question remains: Will expert testimony about the effects of abuse be allowed? Part 1 of 2.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Years of abuse came down to a single moment: Raymond Sheehan, a retired New York Police Department officer, pointed a gun at his wife and threatened her life. She grabbed his second gun and fired first.
Now, Barbara Sheehan faces 15 years to life in prison for the 2008 murder of her husband, a man she says battered her regularly and would have killed her.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he would have killed me," she said of her deceased husband. "He would have killed me and my children, and then probably himself."
The state of New York has charged her with second-degree murder and two counts of weapons possessions. At issue in Barbara Sheehan's case, in which a trial has not yet been scheduled, is whether a court order excluding any expert testimony about her abuse will be overturned. That order, by the now-retired Justice Arthur Cooperman, is currently under review.
Her attorney, Michael Dowd--who has represented more than 25 women charged with killing their abusers in his 40 years of practice--says such evidence is critical to allowing the jury to understand the effects of her years of abuse and the threat she believed she faced the moment she fired the gun.
Evidence of battering and its effects began appearing in criminal cases in the late 1970s, and usually involves the introduction of expert psychiatric testimony.
In the mid-1980s, a watershed case ruled that evidence of battering was admissible to help juries assess a defendant's perception of danger posed by the abuser, as it can help explain not only how a battered person might think, react or behave, but also may place the behavior in an understandable light.
Barbara Sheehan says she acted in self defense, so under New York State law she must demonstrate to the jury that she believed that she was in imminent danger of deadly physical force and that her belief was reasonable.
Expert testimony would be introduced in this case to explain the impact of constant domestic violence, says Dowd. Without that he doubts the jury will be able to place themselves in Barbara Sheehan's position, either to determine the honesty of her fear of imminent danger of being killed or to determine the reasonableness of this belief.
The jury will also have questions about why she stayed if she thought her life was in danger or why she believed the last threat was different from any other time, says Dowd.
"The No. 1 question is 'why didn't she leave'," said Dowd. "Some people cannot understand or perceive circumstances existing where you can't leave."
Expert testimony about the psychological and emotional effects of chronic abuse will provide the answers to those questions, says Dowd, essential to ensuring that Barbara Sheehan receives a fair trial.
Such testimony has been admissible, at least to some degree, in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Rockville, Md.-based National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
Barbara Sheehan claims that her husband abused her for nearly two decades. She says he was overly controlling, blamed her for everything and repeatedly pushed, punched and kicked her--what she refers to as "getting black and blues."
Then there were the threats. Raymond was always armed, even after he retired from the police department in 2002. "He wore two guns all the time," she said, "and kept boxes of bullets in his pockets."
He had pointed a gun at her several times and often referenced his law-enforcement background as providing him the knowledge to commit a perfect crime without leaving a trace.
There is a sense of fear and entrapment particularly acute for women married to abusive police officers, says Diane Wetendorf, an author and consultant on police-perpetrated domestic violence. The unique vulnerability for abused spouses of police officers makes the need for expert psychiatric testimony all the more necessary for a fair trial, she says.
Judges and juries are often unaware of the detailed dynamics involved in spousal abuse at the hands of a police officer, adds Wetendorf, which is "critical to understanding the almost impossibility of a spouse escaping and staying safe when the abuser is a law-enforcement officer."
It is now up to an appellate division of New York's Supreme Court to determine whether to allow in Barbara Sheehan's trial any expert psychiatric testimony on battering and its effects.
Susan V. Stromberg is an attorney and freelance writer.
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