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In Defense of Barbara Sheehan:
When a Battered Woman Kills

Barbara Sheehan Photo by Noelle HanarhanOn February 18, 2008, Barbara Sheehan knew her husband was going to kill her – not just some day, but that day.  Throughout their 24-year marriage he had continually threatened to kill her, then her two children, and then to “go out in a blaze of glory.”  And he had also regularly beaten, punched, slapped, kicked, tackled, pinched, spat on and thrown things at her, including a full pot of simmering pasta sauce.  Over those years she’d suffered broken bones, black eyes, a broken nose and uncounted other bloody injuries. 

But that day in February the beatings would finally end. That morning when her husband, retired NYPD Sgt. Raymond Sheehan, pointed the gun at her face and said, “I will fucking kill you,” for the first time in her life Barbara too held a gun.  And moments later Raymond Sheehan lay dead on the blood-soaked bathroom floor of their Howard Beach home.

Today, 3 years later, Barbara Sheehan is on trial in the Queens criminal courthouse, charged with second degree murder in her husband’s death.  And the issue of police domestic violence – law enforcement officers’ battering of their intimate partners – breaks out of the silence and into the national consciousness.

Purple Berets are there in that courtroom, covering the trial as a part of our national focus “When the Batterer Is a Cop.”  For the next two weeks we will be your eyes and ears in the courtroom in the most important domestic violence trial of the day.

To comment on what you read, go to the “Contact Us” page or write to the editor of the New York Times. 

Links to Trial Updates
Part I – A History of Violence
Part II - The Case for Self-Defense
Part III - Testimony Wraps Up
Barbara Sheehan Acquitted of Murder!
Audio Files
Verdict in Sheehan 10-7-2011 Trial FSRN 1:24
Verdict in Sheehan 10-7-2011 Trial WBAI News 3:10

In Defense of Barbara Sheehan
Part I: A History of Violence

Tanya Brannan © 2011

On Monday, September 19, Barbara Sheehan took the stand in her own defense against a charge of second-degree murder.  On February 18, 2008, her husband, retired NYPD crime scene Sgt. Raymond Sheehan lay dead of gunshot wounds in the couple’s Howard Beach home.  Barbara, on her knees with two guns in hand, immediately admitted she had shot him.

For three days, I sat in a Queens criminal courtroom as Barbara Sheehan told a jury the story of her twenty-four year marriage and the violence that led up to the shooting.  Here in a nutshell is that story.

The Early Days
The real violence in the relationship started within a few years of their marriage with the birth of their second child, a son also named Raymond. Barbara’s husband Raymond worked nights, and was home with the children during the hours Barbara worked. “He would call me constantly at work,” Barbara testified. “Come home, the baby’s diaper needs to be changed. Come put the barrette in Jennifer’s hair.” Each call was angrier than the one before, each time he was more demanding, until finally Barbara would leave work and go home.

There the pushing and shoving would start. Barbara would cry; Raymond would apologize, send flowers, promise not to do it again; the promise was never kept. In addition to the violence the verbal abuse was soul-killing. He harangued her constantly; called her stupid and fat, a horrible mother and housekeeper, worthless as a person. He blamed her for everything – the traffic (“If you’d been ready we’d have left sooner and would have missed this”); his drinking (“If you’d sat next to me I wouldn’t have drunk so much); everything was Barbara’s fault.

Things went on like this for years. The only thing that changed is that at some point he stopped apologizing. The violence escalated, now occurring two or three times a week and increasingly severe. He started to knock her down and then step on her or spit in her face; he’d trip her, calling her clumsy; then he began to choke. At first he hit her on her back and upper arms – places that wouldn’t show – but eventually he didn’t care anymore. He’d punch her in the face, in the arms, blacken her eyes.

A Painful Litany of Violence & Degradation
Barbara Sheehan’s days on the witness stand were a litany of monstrous violence – violence that was clearly building to a crescendo. Among the specific incidents she detailed were these:

• In the summer of 1994, Raymond came home from his brother’s bachelor’s party “too drunk to walk” and angry. That night he beat her so badly he broke her eardrum. By the next morning she was black and blue from head to toe and had two black eyes.

• By the mid-1990s Barbara wasn’t allowed to go anywhere alone. Raymond would track her constantly, track her down wherever she was. When she’d return from the grocery store he would demand to see the receipt so he could see what time she‘d checked out. If he thought she had taken too long getting home he’d start screaming and hitting her.

• His last four years on the police force Raymond work as a sergeant in the crime scene unit. By this time his threats to kill were relentless – first he would kill her, then the children and then he would “go out in glory.” He’d bring home pictures of dead bodies at crime scenes saying, “That’s what you’ll look like if you ever try to leave me.” He always said he could pull off the perfect crime because, with his crime scene training, he knew exactly how to do it.

• In 1999, on returning from their 10 year-old son’s baseball game, Raymond was screaming and rageful, berating his son because he hadn’t played well enough. “I told him not to talk to our son like that,” Barbara said. In response Raymond took a pot of simmering pasta sauce off the stove and threw it at her, scalding her arms and torso. Then he pushed her to the floor into the steaming sauce, yelling , “Clean it up!” and “Don’t you ever tell me how to treat my son!”

• In 2002 the family went to Lake George on vacation. Raymond had gotten drunk and fallen asleep at the pool. Barbara woke him in time to get ready for dinner. When they returned to their room Raymond chased her around the room in a rage. After their daughter Jennifer ran out of the room in terror, Raymond beat Barbara to a pulp, leaving her with two black eyes.

• Later that year Raymond retired from the NYPD. But still he carried at least two guns with him at all times – even at home – one at his waist and one in an ankle-holster. When he watched TV a gun would rest on the coffee table. Even when he was in the shower, a gun lay always within reach. By this time the threats to kill were constant.

• In August 2007 Raymond and Barbara went on vacation to Jamaica with their son and another family. They were all going together to a VIP dinner that evening. After Barbara got ready for dinner, she woke Raymond, knowing it always took him an hour or two to shower. She went downstairs to tell everyone to go on and they’d meet them at the dinner. When she got back upstairs Raymond was still sleeping. She woke him again, and he went into a rage.

“I said I would just go on without him. He chased me down before I could reach the door. He beat me, grabbed me by the hair and beat my face against the cinder-block walls again and again – all over room, from one wall to another. I had a big gash on my head – there was blood everywhere.”

When the couple went to the hotel desk for directions to a hospital, Raymond wouldn’t let Barbara talk. He said she had fallen in the shower and hit her head on sink. They went into the restaurant to tell the others where they were going. Barbara’s head was wrapped in a bloody towel.

“This incident really scared me because now he abused me in front of everyone – he didn’t care anymore if people knew what was happening,” Barbara testified. “That made me realize how dangerous he was – that he really had no regard for me or my safety.” From that point on, she knew anything could happen.

In December 2007, Barbara threw a family party for their son’s 18th birthday. The whole family was there – Barbara’s parents and siblings as well as Raymond’s brother Vincent and wife Linda. The men were watching a ball game when Raymond, drunk as usual, called Barbara’s father a “dick” and a “fucking c---.” When Barbara’s brother defended their dad, he and Raymond got into a screaming argument. Raymond stormed out in a rage. When he returned later, he ran at Barbara screaming and out of control. Linda told him not to do that “in front of us.”

After that Barbara was all the more terrified. Now Raymond didn’t care who saw what he was doing, even her family. After that night Raymond demanded she cut off communication with her family, a tight-knit clan most of whom lived within a few blocks of each other. The shroud of isolation was drawing tighter.

That night, Linda gave Barbara the phone number for a domestic violence hotline. They told her she was in the most dangerous position possible – because he was a cop and because the violence had spiraled out of control. Barbara started making plans to get away – saving money for her escape, telling officials at her work what was going on. She knew time was running out.

. . . To be continued.

In Defense of Barbara Sheehan
Part II - The Case for Self-Defense
© Tanya Brannan 2011

The Queens criminal courtroom rustled with anxiety as the defense began to focus in on the 24 hours leading up to the shooting. Barbara Sheehan, 50-year-old school secretary and mother of two, was facing second-degree murder charges in the 2008 shooting death of her husband Raymond, a retired New York police sergeant. All eyes were on Barbara, who was already wrung out by hours of questioning on the ever-present violence and abuse that had filled her twenty-four year marriage.

By February 17, 2008, Barbara had been telling her husband for two weeks that she was not going with him on a planned vacation to Florida. She said she was afraid because of the beating she’d suffered on their last vacation and she feared being alone with him. Raymond ignored her.

When on the 16th she again refused to go, Raymond took all her money, credit cards and keys and said, “You are fucking going to Florida with me!” That day Barbara went to the nearby home of her friend and co-worker, Betsy Torres, trying to figure out a way to get out of the trip to Florida and not get hurt. While she was there, Raymond kept calling her cell and screaming for her to come home saying that if she didn’t, “First he’d find the kids and ‘take care’ of them, then he’d get me,” Barbara testified. At one point she put the phone on speaker so Torres could hear Raymond’s rage. Betsy begged her to stay with her, but Barbara knew her children would be in danger. Just as she always had, Barbara returned home.

That afternoon she and Raymond drove to visit their son in college. The pair argued all the way to Connecticut about the upcoming Florida trip. Their son Raymond later described his father’s behavior at dinner that night as “weird; he hardly said anything and paid no attention to us.” He was so concerned that after they left, Raymond texted his mom asking if everything was okay.

Barbara described the return trip to the city. Before they had even gotten out of the parking lot at the college, her husband Raymond started yelling at her, demanding she go with him to Florida the next day or else. He punched her in the face, either breaking or dislocating her nose. As Barbara bled profusely, an enraged Raymond screamed. “If you get blood in my new car, I’ll kill you right here!”

Then Raymond pulled the car over by a wooded area and tried to literally kick her out of the car. Afraid of what would happen if she were outside the car, Barbara held on for dear life. When they got home she saw that her nose was lying on the side of her face and that she needed to go to a hospital. Her husband had her keys so she started walking.

Soon Raymond pulled up beside her and told her to get in. On the floor of the car she noticed a gun along with a box of bullets. Throughout the five-mile trip to the hospital, he told her again and again that if she told anyone at the hospital what had happened to her he would kill the kids, then her family and then “go down in glory.”

The whole time Barbara was inside the ER he was calling her from the car, saying, “If I see a cop car drive up here, you’re dead.” The calls were constant and terrifying, as Raymond threatened to kill her if she didn’t come out. Afraid to stay longer, she finally left without waiting for medical help. “When I got home I repositioned my nose myself,” she said. Then she went to bed.

At 7 a.m. on the morning of February 18th, Raymond dragged Barbara out of bed and down the stairs, screaming. When she again refused to go with him to Florida, he pushed her outside into the rainy, New York winter morning, saying she couldn’t come back inside until she agreed to go with him. Finally, after about an hour in the freezing rain, Barbara answered his repeated cell phone calls, agreeing she would go.

Raymond let her inside and told her to change the reservations so they would not be spending the last part of the vacation with her family on Florida’s East coast. Barbara was terrified and making excuses for not making the change, when he put a gun to her head, a Glock semi-automatic pistol, and said, “If you don’t call I’ll kill you right now.” Barbara complied.

When Raymond went up to take a shower Barbara found her car keys and went to her friend Betsy’s, hoping she could help her. “I can’t go; I can’t go to Florida,” she cried. But Raymond had sworn to kill the children if she didn’t go, so Barbara had no choice but to return.

When she arrived home, she heard that the shower had stopped. Fearfully she went upstairs and knocked on the bathroom door. Thinking that if she had his permission to go out she could get away and he wouldn’t go after the kids, Barbara said she was going to the store to get dog food. When Raymond opened the door, he put the Glock to her head and said, “You’re not going anywhere or I will fucking kill you, kill everybody, and go down in glory.” His eyes were glazed over – blank. His face was scary. “I knew he was going to kill me right now,” Barbara testified.

She ran to the bedroom to get the money she’d been saving for her escape. Raymond’s other gun, a .38 caliber revolver (standard police issue) was lying on the dresser. Barbara picked it up, thinking that if she had a gun maybe he wouldn’t shoot her. But to get downstairs she had to pass the bathroom. She walked fearfully toward the stairs.

As she reached the bathroom door, there was Raymond pointing the Glock at Barbara’s head and again screaming that he would kill her. “I shot him,” she testified. “I’d never fired a gun before; I don’t know how many times I shot. I didn’t really aim, I just shot. He was aiming the gun at me and I could see he was going to kill me so I shot.”

Raymond slid to the floor, still raging at her. Realizing what she’d done, Barbara stepped into the bathroom to help him when she saw him reaching for the Glock that had dropped to the floor when he fell. “He was reaching for the gun and screaming, ‘I’ll fucking kill you,’ and trying to get up. I thought if he got up he was positively going to kill me. So I picked up the big gun and shot. I stopped firing when he quit yelling and couldn’t get up. Then I ran downstairs.”

With the end of Barbara’s direct testimony, you could see her gird herself for the assault that would inevitably come with cross examination by assistant D.A. Pomodore. For the next two days Barbara endured every form of duplicity and innuendo as the ADA attempted to undermine her testimony.

At one point Pomodore ordered Barbara to pick up the .38 revolver used in the shooting and hold it as she had as she’d walked down the hallway that morning; then again to hold it and show the jury what position she was in when she shot her husband. Barbara was hysterical, begging the judge not to force her to hold the hated gun, finally saying, “I feel like I’m going to be physically sick.” “Did you feel physically sick on the morning you used this gun to shoot and kill your husband?” Pomodore retorted.

With that Barbara broke down. The jury was hustled out and Barbara’s children, kept outside the courtroom until they testified, were allowed in to comfort their mother. The audience, shaken and themselves tearful, watched Barbara Sheehan and her children, Jennifer and Raymond, comfort and protect each other, just as they always had.

(Next: Testimony Wraps Up.)

In Defense of Barbara Sheehan
Part III - Testimony Wraps Up
Tanya Brannan © 2011

The relief in the courtroom was palpable as Barbara Sheehan left the witness stand after three grueling days of testimony. Over the next week and a half the defense team wrapped up the testimony that they hope will prove that Barbara acted in self defense when she shot and killed her husband, retired NYPD Sgt. Raymond Sheehan in February, 2008.

Barbara’s children, 21 year-old Ray and her daughter Jennifer Joyce, a 25-year-old nurse, testified about their torturous home life. Both recalled that their earliest memories of their father involved beatings and bruising of their mother. They recounted the hostage situation in which Barbara found herself, with her husband confiscating credit cards and keys to keep her in check, clocking her every move, and threatening to kill her and the children if she got out of line.

Both also testified to the constant presence of loaded guns in the house, and that their father carried at least two guns “all day every day,” as young Ray put it. And they corroborated Barbara’s account of specific violent incidents and the constant degradation of their mother and themselves. Ray recalled one incident that occurred when the family was driving home from one of his baseball games when he was about 12. His mom tried to intervene to protect him from his dad’s berating Ray for how he’d played .

“My dad punched her in the face,” yelling to her not to tell him how to treat his son. Barbara fell to the ground and his father stormed out. “Ten minutes later he called mom on her cell phone. He was screaming, ‘I’m coming home to pack my bags. If I see any one of you there I’ll kill you right then.’ We all hid in my sister’s room. We heard the front door open, heard him walk upstairs and pack his suitcase.” The three huddled together, terrified, holding their breath and trying not to make a sound. “I remember being afraid for my life,” Ray testified.

If we thought that prosecutor Debra Pomodore would go easier on the kids than on Barbara, we were wrong. In cross-examining Ray, Pomodore implied he was a wimp because he didn’t fight back against his father. Ray said, “If we ever stood up to him it just went worse for my mother.”

“Well if you were so concerned about your mother’s safety, why didn’t you go to college here in New York? Surely you could have,” Pomodore taunted. Ray replied tearfully, “Because by the end of high school I seriously thought about suicide. I couldn’t continue to live with my father because I feared I would do it.”

Battered Women’s Syndrome
In the third week of trial Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell was called as an expert in Barbara’s defense. A professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University, Campbell has authored a number of studies on domestic violence homicide and developed the most respected danger/lethality assessment for women in battering situations.

But the jury wasn’t allowed to hear testimony on that lethality assessment or on how the victim’s situation is exacerbated when the batterer is a police officer. Instead, Campbell could present only generic testimony on the cycle of violence and the concept of “learned helplessness” – where 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. And as always, it sounded suspiciously like an analysis of what’s wrong with the battered woman – not the batterer – that puts her in a situation of kill-or-be-killed.

But what was excluded by the court in Barbara Sheehan’s defense is much more important. In fact, of the twenty or so indicators of lethality in a battering relationship, nearly all were present in Barbara’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 herself knew to be true – that her time was running out.

Also excluded was the effect of Raymond Sheehan’s employment as a police sergeant in Barbara’s ability to report the abuse. How do you call the police when he is the police? (Or as Barbara testified, “You can’t call the police on 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?

That critical information was hidden from the jury. To what effect? Only time and the verdict will tell.

Barbara Sheehan Acquitted of Murder!

On October 6th after just three days of deliberation, a Queens, New York jury found Barbara Sheehan not guilty of second degree murder in the shooting death of her husband, retired NYPD Sgt. Raymond Sheehan. Despite the judge’s warning against emotional outbursts, the courtroom erupted when the verdict was read as Barbara fell sobbing into the arms of defense attorney, Niall MacGiollabhui. The jury found Sheehan guilty, however, of a lesser charge of criminal possession of a firearm.

Three and a half years had passed since Barbara shot her husband as he pointed a gun at her and snarled, “You’re not going anywhere or I will fucking kill you.” Over the four-week trial despite the defense litany of the ever-present violence and abuse that dominated her marriage, prosecutor Debra Pomodore derided Sheehan, calling her and her children liars, and characterizing the shooting as a cold-blooded assassination. “She broke my heart,” Barbara said on Sunday.

Barbara, who has been free on bond pending the trial, has been ordered to turn herself in on Tuesday with sentencing set for sometime in November. If given the minimum sentence, she will serve a little more than a year in prison.

“I can do that,” Barbara said. “Yesterday I was facing a mountain; today it’s only a hill in front of me. I can do the hill.”

On Tuesday, lead attorney Michael Dowd will ask the court to allow Barbara to remain free on bond at least until sentencing. An appeal of the conviction is being prepared.


September 2011


© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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