Bullets are wrong way out of a marriage

First published in Newsday.

As the facts stand, it seems wrong to allow Barbara Sheehan to get away with killing her husband. Sheehan, 50, is the Howard Beach, Queens, woman who was just acquitted of murder by reason of self-defense, based on her claims of physical and psychological abuse by Sgt. Raymond Sheehan, a retired cop and her husband of 24 years.

She shot him 11 times on a February morning in 2008, leaving him dead in their bathroom, where he had been shaving. She got off 11 rounds -- and he? Zero. Considering the circumstances, this doesn't seem as much like a woman who fired in self-defense as someone who was shooting to kill.

And yet, a jury on Thursday found her not guilty of murder. It's troubling that, with as many social and legal supports as we've erected for abused partners in the past 40 years, Barbara Sheehan still felt she had to resort to killing to escape her marriage, no matter how nightmarish.

Up until the 1970s, domestic violence, and especially violence against women, was dismissed by the criminal justice system as "a family matter." Perpetrators were often not arrested or charged with crimes. Police gave a low priority to "domestic" calls.

But much has changed. Many states have enacted mandatory arrest laws for reports of violence. Some states have set up special courts and treatment programs for batterers. Victims can seek restraining orders and take refuge in clandestine emergency shelters. The U.S. Department of Justice created an Office on Violence Against Women in 1994, and estimates that this crime fell by more than 50 percent in the subsequent decade.

Sheehan testified that she feared her husband would kill her in one of his rages. He kept at least one gun with him at all times, had smashed her head into a cement wall, and had often held a gun to her head. She said he insinuated that his past as a police officer would make it difficult for her to report him and escape his orbit. She claimed that his threats had been growing more serious.

Sheehan told the court that on that final morning, Feb. 18, she took her husband's revolver and tried to sneak out of their home. But he allegedly confronted her with his 9-mm Glock pistol, which he had taken into the bathroom. She fired five shots from the revolver, retrieved his pistol, and then emptied that into his body too.

Acquitted of murder, Sheehan faces sentencing Nov. 10 on a conviction of gun possession, which could carry three to 15 years behind bars.

What she apparently did not do, before resorting to this lethal act, was call 9-1-1. During Sheehan's monthlong trial, she produced no record of reports to police. She didn't claim, as women often did when their customary role was housewife, that she couldn't afford to leave; she had a job, as a school secretary. Nor could she have been afraid of leaving her children behind: Their daughter and son were grown.

Granted, it may have been dangerous for Sheehan to inform to the police on one of their own. And domestic violence victims are said to enter a kind of mental paralysis and passivity after years of domination, humiliation and torture. Statistics argue that Sheehan had good reason to fear for her life; of those killed by an intimate partner each year, three-quarters are female.

The prosecution argued that she stayed in the marriage to collect her husband's life insurance money. But there should have been some half step she could have taken. Remaining passive in the face of abuse and then nailing someone with 11 bullets shouldn't have felt like her only option. Raymond Sheehan was probably a monster. But society has worked hard to ensure that battered women don't have to resort to violence, too.