A Howard Beach woman who says she was physically and mentally tortured for years and faces 25 years to life for fatally shooting her husband, was told by a Queens Supreme Court justice she’ll have to stand trial without psychiatric testimony — a crucial component needed to prove she suffered from battered woman’s syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Barbara Sheehan, 48, was arrested last February at her home in Old Howard Beach after the mother of two fired 11 shots at her husband, retired NYPD officer Raymond Sheehan, while he shaved. According to Sheehan and her 23-year-old daughter Jennifer, the family lived in constant fear of Raymond Sheehan, whom the suspect has said threatened to kill her and their family and regularly punched and kicked her and held a gun to her head.
Despite these accusations, Justice Arthur Cooperman ruled last week that Sheehan, who is out on bail after being charged with second-degree murder and two counts of possession of a weapon, would be barred from having either the defense or district attorney’s psychiatrist testify at her trial, which starts next month.
The decision was handed down after Sheehan and her attorney, Michael Dowd, missed a court-ordered psychiatric examination on Sept. 18. Dowd, however, says he told the judge he had a conflicting court appearance in Suffolk County and would need to reschedule the appointment.
Further complicating matters, court papers reveal Dowd failed to comply with Criminal Procedure Law while Sheehan was interviewed by the prosecutor’s psychiatrist this past summer. According to the law, a defendant’s attorney can be present at an examination, but must not interrupt in any way. The court claims Dowd argued with the assistant district attorneys, yelled at the court secretary and caused the examination to end before its completion.
Dowd admitted in court papers to speaking out during the interview because he believed Sheehan was not well. His actions, however, should not result in his client’s inability to properly defend herself, he protested.
“This is the first time in 30 years I’ve seen this,” Dowd said of Cooperman’s decision. “It’s crippling, to put it mildly. It’s her life. She’s never missed one exam.”
A spokeswoman for the Queens District Attorney’s Office said that, as her representative, Dowd is acting on Sheehan’s behalf. Therefore, the decisions he makes will affect her defense.
While acknowledging in papers that the ruling out of psychiatric testimony is a “very serious and drastic remedy,” the court held there was a “deliberate strategy of delay” on the defendant’s part.
One of the defenses in question, battered woman’s syndrome, which is defined as a pattern of psychological and behavioral symptoms prevalent in women living with abusive partners, has never actually been recognized as a defense in court, said Elizabeth Schneider, a professor of law at Brooklyn College. In fact, only 31 states allow expert testimony concerning the syndrome, which the American Psychiatric Association still considers a subgroup of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But Carmella Marrone, executive director of Women and Work at Queens College, said one of the characteristics of the syndrome — called learned helplessness — helps to explain Sheehan’s motivation in killing her husband in self defense. “Over time, the battering teaches women they can’t see themselves as capable of standing up for themselves,” Marrone said. “These women are not flying off the handle — it’s long-term abuse that becomes so overwhelming they can’t see a solution.”
Marrone said that, by stripping Sheehan of the ability to use psychiatric testimony, the court is essentially denying her day in court. “The point of the criminal justice system is to search out the truth,” she said. “Without this testimony, those jurors and judge won’t hear the full truth.”
Dowd confirmed he is still working on changing the court’s decision, but both parties have yet to agree.