An Abused Wife? Or an Executioner?

DAN BILEFSKY

September 25, 2011

The murder trial of Barbara Sheehan, the Queens school secretary who shot her husband with 11 bullets, often bears the hallmarks of a dysfunctional wake.

Rather than sharing sentimental memories about the late Raymond Sheehan, his own children convey a palpable relief that he is dead.

The divisions of the Sheehan clan of Howard Beach have been on prominent display in State Supreme Court in Queens, where Ms. Sheehan’s children, siblings and friends sit in pews on one end of the courtroom, wearing purple ribbons in solidarity with victims of domestic violence.

Mr. Sheehan’s twin brother, Vincent, sits as far away as possible on the opposite side. He cringes uncomfortably as witness after witness testifies about Raymond’s quirky behavior, including making death threats to his wife by showing her crime-scene photos of dead bodies, and taking his loaded semiautomatic handgun with him when he went to the bathroom.

Ms. Sheehan sits in the front, at times gagging, clutching her heart and sobbing uncontrollably when the events of Feb. 28, 2008, the day she killed her husband, are recounted over and over again.

As the trial enters its third week, the jury has been presented with two starkly competing narratives: one of a viciously battered wife defending herself against an abusive tormenter who forced her to engage in bizarre sexual rituals and whose own children despised him; the other of a shrewish and vengeful woman who executed her husband simply because she wanted him dead.

This week, witnesses for the defense will continue to portray Mr. Sheehan as a twisted and menacing man, and his son-in-law and Ms. Sheehan’s co-workers are ready to testify to his apparent brutality.

Whatever the true motives for the killing, proving that Mr. Sheehan was an abidingly hateful man is not enough to exonerate Ms. Sheehan of murder, legal experts said.

For that to happen, the jury must be convinced that she reasonably feared an imminent threat to her life when she shot him while he was shaving in their home.

Here the defense faces several daunting challenges, including explaining why Ms. Sheehan did not just leave her husband or call the police.

The defense has sought to build a case that Ms. Sheehan suffered from battered women’s syndrome, in which an abused woman, conditioned by years of violence and threats of death, is said to feel increasingly helpless, trapped and impotent in the face of her aggressor.

Jacquelyn C. Campbell, an expert witness on domestic violence from Johns Hopkins University, likened an abused woman to a dog who receives a shock every time it tries to leave a cage, eventually remaining frozen in place, even when the cage door is left opened.

Battered women’s syndrome became so widely accepted as a legal defense in the early 1990s that a number of states, notably Ohio and Maryland, granted clemency to some women imprisoned for assaulting or killing their mates.

But the Queens prosecutor, Debra Pomodore, attacked the syndrome as little more than “pseudoscience” embraced by the defendant out of desperation to stay out of prison. Moreover, Ms. Pomodore, an assistant district attorney, argued, being abused was not an excuse for an open season on killing men; of the nearly four million women abused each year by their husbands in the United States, only 500 to 600 killed them, she said.

On Friday, the prosecution continued to build its case that Mr. Sheehan, a former crime scene investigator for the New York Police Department, was a doting father and husband who was being unfairly demonized.

Ms. Pomodore described how he had hosted a Sweet 16 party for his daughter, Jennifer, at a fancy catering hall, Russo’s on the Bay in Howard Beach, where she lighted a candle for her parents, and wore a tiara and blue satin dress.

Portraying the defendant as a fabulist who exaggerated her abuse, Ms. Pomodore showed the jury a photo of the defendant and Mr. Sheehan embracing lovingly on a vacation in San Diego in 2007 as they mimicked an iconic photo of a World War II sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square.

But taking the stand on Thursday and Friday, the Sheehans’ daughter, Jennifer Joyce, 25, a chemotherapy nurse, said the outward appearance of domestic bliss belied a family so dangerously explosive that her father would punch her mother in the face when they got stuck in traffic.

Ms. Joyce broke down when the prosecutor questioned her about the $234,000 she had received from Mr. Sheehan’s life insurance policies, suggesting that Ms. Sheehan had killed her husband so the family could benefit financially.

“Can’t you see it wasn’t about the money?” Ms. Joyce said, bursting into tears. “He was worth more alive than he is dead.”

Before the trial, Ms. Joyce was asked if she had gone to her father’s funeral. She had not. But she did go to his wake. “I just wanted to see for myself,” she said, “that he was dead.”

Last week, Ms. Sheehan’s son, Raymond, 21, said he had gone to a college out of state because he feared that his father’s behavior might push him to commit suicide.

Beyond trying to defend a dead man from the contempt of his children, the prosecutor has argued that Ms. Sheehan had several motives to kill her husband; only weeks before the shooting, she had told her daughter that she wanted to get a divorce.

Her behavior hours before the killing also has come into question: She proofread her son’s religion essay and sent text messages to Jennifer, offering to bring her clothes.

In a withering cross-examination that will quite likely go down as the most uncomfortable moment in a trial that has featured many, Ms. Pomodore insinuated last week that Ms. Sheehan had been driven to murder because her husband had forced her to engage in his perverse sexual fantasies, including watching him masturbate while he wore an adult diaper or women’s clothes.

Ms. Pomodore presented the defendant with an e-mail sent in October 2007 from an account used on a computer that Ms. Sheehan had shared with her husband. In the e-mail, sent to someone called “sissybabygirl777,” she said Ms. Sheehan had been trying to solicit a couple to engage with the Sheehans in role-playing before a trip to Albany to watch their son play football.

“I can’t believe he did this,” Ms. Sheehan said, covering her face with her hands and crying. “I never sent an e-mail. Absolutely not!”

The prosecutor has also shown that Ms. Sheehan has benefited financially from the killing of her husband.

Ms. Pomodore has shown the jury records of checks that Ms. Sheehan’s children wrote to her, drawing on funds from Mr. Sheehan’s life insurance policies after he was killed. Her son wrote a check for $199,655.75 to GMAC to help pay off Ms. Sheehan’s home equity loan, and her daughter wrote separate checks for $65,000 and $52,806 to help pay off another of her debts.

The prosecution produced a letter Ms. Sheehan wrote to the financial firm where her husband had worked in security, requesting details of his life insurance.

“My husband passed away on Feb. 18, 2008,” Ms. Sheehan wrote; the letter was composed only a few days after she was released from Rikers Island in March 2008.

The letter, written in Ms. Sheehan’s handwriting, did not mention how Mr. Sheehan had died.

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