Barbara Sheehan killed her husband. That fact has never been debated. Yet, in the month long trial that reached its end just yesterday: Thursday, October 6 there was constant debate. The debate was over Ms. Sheehan’s claim of the battered woman’s defense. Ms. Sheehan’s attorney, Michael Dowd, a lawyer who has defended many battered women, portrayed Ms. Sheehan as a chronically abused wife who shot her husband in self-defense. The prosecution portrayed Ms. Sheehan as a cold, exacting killer who hated her husband, killed him, and then fabricated an abuse narrative to escape justice.
The battered woman’s defense came about in the late 1970s as an extension of the battered woman’s syndrome, coined by Dr. Leonore Walker. Battered woman’s syndrome attempts to explain the mindset and emotional state of women who have suffered long term abuse. It is based on the idea that abuse victims begin to operate in a reality different from non-victims due to the continual violence, fear, and manipulation connected to the abuse. This syndrome has been more recently linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. Legally, the battered woman’s defense, allows the use of domestic violence related testimony, which otherwise would not play a large bearing in a murder trial.
The problem with using the battered woman’s defense is that the defense still has to maneuver the jury’s opinions and perceptions of victims of domestic violence. The prosecution used a barrage of domestic violence myth based questions in the examination of Barbara Sheehan and her son. They exploited the fact that Barbara stayed with her husband; that there were no police records of violence; that some neighbors and friends described her husband as a “nice guy” who coached youth leagues and threw his daughter a sweet sixteen party. Reading the comment boards on some news sites, this line of prosecution was more effective than one would wish to think.
Abusive relationships are very difficult to get out of. Victims are often in very powerless situations and have very limited options if they want to leave. It is also a fact that lethality drastically increases aftera victim leaves an abusive situation.
And while the prosecution of the Sheehan case was more than willing to portray Raymond Sheehan as a dutiful police officer that helped in the aftermath of 9/11, what was left unsaid were exactly what options the wife of an abusive police officer husband would have by way of reporting the crime.
The surprise by outsiders that Mr. Sheehan was abusive is actually not shocking when coupled with an understanding of domestic violence and abuser methodology. It is to be expected. Abusers tend to be very charming and gregarious when they want to be. Despite popular belief, they do not walk around with an “A” tattooed on their forehead. Only in a society where domestic violence is not as widely understood as the pervasive and serious issue that it is, would a prosecution consider those lines of questioning the best route in swaying a jury.
While the jury in the Sheehan case, acquitted Barbara Sheehan of murder yesterday, the attitudes about the case in newspaper articles and websites, the comments made by those following the case, and the language used in reports of the case, make it very clear that domestic violence is still largely misunderstood. It is important for the silence around domestic violence to be broken.
You can help debunk the myths and change the attitudes about domestic violence! Become informed. Reading this blog is a great first step! Talk to your friends, coworkers and family members about domestic violence and its effects. Speak up when you hear victim blaming or perpetuation of dv myths. Continue your support of FVPC and its efforts to educate others about domestic violence, and be an ally for those who have/are experiencing it.