A murder trial in New York City is bringing attention to violence within police families. This week Barbara Sheehan will take the stand in her 2nd degree murder trial. The testimony of her and her children will be the basis of a self-defense claim in the shooting death of her husband, retired NYPD police Sergeant Raymond Sheehan. Noelle Hanrahan [NMH] reports from the Queens Supreme Court.
NMH: In the mid 1970’s three high profile cases of women who killed their attackers in self-defense galvanized feminists and lawyers to demand that the law acknowledge evidence of abuse. Yvonne Wanrow Swan, a Native American from Washington State, killed a man accused of molesting her son, Joanne little, an African American woman stabbed her prison guard attacker in North Carolina, and Inez Garcia shot her rapist in Soledad California. Before this domestic violence and sexual assault were often not treated as a crime under state or federal law.But these historic cases expanded the law to acknowledge self-defense and women’s rights.
Many are now watching Barbara Sheehan’s case, which could expose a hidden epidemic: Police officers who batter their wives. It is not just about Sheehan’s case. If cops are not held accountable for intimate partner violence, what happens when they respond to domestic violence calls, which are the largest percentage of calls to police, according to the Justice Department.
Dottie Davis is Deputy Police Chief in Fort Wayne Indiana.
We know that that sixteen to 19 percent of the general population are batters. And police officers come from the general population at large we are not special. There is nothing to say that we are less likely to be involved in domestic violence. If anything think about it a law enforcement officer has a lot of power and so wouldn’t a batter be attracted to that profession. I believe the answer is yes.NMH: Another problem according to Deputy Chief Davis is that, domestic violence by police officers is rarely reported.
Generally it is about less than one percent of an agency is every reported and it is not because there aren’t victims out there it is because victims know that they are not going to get any help when they go to the agency to report.NMH: Barbara Sheehan’s case embodies all of these issues. In February of 2008, she shot and killed her husband of 24 years. The defense argues it followed nearly two decades of physical and verbal abuse, including death threats. The DA says that Barbara Sheehan executed her husband.
NMH: Barbara Sheehan
It was self-defense he came after me with his gun. My husband was a sergeant actually with the New York City Police Department and he had his weapons and he used his weapons to threaten us me and my children.NMH: Sheehan says others can learn from her case.
It is important people need to know warning signs and when to get out of a situation early enough before something tragic actually happens.NMH: Sheehan’s Lawyer Michael Dowd has represented domestic violence survivors before.
These women are literally fighting for their lives. It is either they live or die. At the time my client shot her husband he was threatening her with a gun and threatening to kill her. How can a jury put themselves in the place of Barbara Sheehan unless they know what she went throughNMH: The voices of survivors of police abuse are rarely heard, and Sheehan’s trial will not include these types of witnesses. But some are trying to get their stories out including Jill Burrella. She endured years of bloody fights, broken bones, even being held hostage at gun point. Her husband’s police department took away his duty issued gun. But after dozens of calls to police and a permanent restraining order, her husband George continued to work in the Philadelphia Police department.
“He would break the phone. He would not let the kids call in the past either. You know. So of course he slammed down the phone. Broke the kitchen phone. It was only our eight hundredth phone he loved breaking phones. Chased me I did not get far. You know. I got to the end of our sidewalk in front of our house. And he drug me back in the house threw me down right on the inside of the door in the foyer and shot me. Yeah my lung collapsed, I guess just because it doesn’t like a hot searing bullet going through it. And I remember him just standing in the doorway staring at me after he shot me. And uhm I was wearing a sweater it was January. And I remember it was a light color and I remember it was getting heavy and I looked down and it was filling up with my blood.NMH: George then shot himself and died.
Police officers who commit domestic violence crimes are rarely disciplined.
In a rare case of police accountability, Marcela Espino testified against her ex-husband San Francisco Police officer William Taylor. Prior to raping her, Taylor had gotten a slap on the wrist, a 90 day suspension without pay, and no formal charges filed for a rape attempt against a female officer in her patrol car. When the DA filed charges for the second sexual assault he was convicted and sent to prison.
“The I thought ok why am I here. And I would always say that. A say why am I here Marcela. To tell him that he will not do it again one more time. No one more time. That I will not be kept silent. That that is enough. And that this is my voice.”The second degree murder trial of Barbara Sheehan in Queens is being closely watched by legal scholars and domestic violence survivors and their advocates across the country. This case brings the issue of law enforcement officers who perpetrate intimate partner violence to national attention.
NMH: The Queens District Attorney’s office refused to comment for this story.
A conviction for Sheehan could mean twenty five years to life in prison. But she said she’s not willing to take a plea deal. “I spent 24 years in hell,” Sheehan told FSRN before the trial began, " I am not going to give that man one more year of my life”.
Noelle Hanrahan FSRN, Queens
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