Many people have a visceral dislike for defense attorneys. Mention the attorneys for O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony, and these people will spit. They wonder how these lawyers can sleep at night after a day spent defending a scumbag.
But sometimes prosecutors defend scumbags too.
That’s the impression I got this morning after reading an article in The New York Times about Queens’ prosecution of Barbara Sheehan, who murdered her husband Raymond on February 28, 2008, shooting him 11 times while he was shaving. She claims to have suffered from battered woman syndrome. There has been testimony that Sheehan, an NYPD crime scene investigator, showed his wife crime scene photos as a threat. There has been testimony about his strange and humiliating sexual demands.
All of their children have testified to his abusive behavior. Their daughter Jennifer testified about a time when her father punched her mother in the face while they were stuck in traffic. She further testified that she skipped his funeral and only attended the wake to make sure he was dead. Their son Raymond testified that he decided to attend college out-of-state because being too close to home might have driven him to suicide. Their son-in-law and Mrs. Sheehan’s co-workers are slated to testify about the abuse next week.
I have no idea how much of their testimony is true. However, reading the prosecution case, I was disturbed by the realization that prosecutors were using the exact same arguments that a defense attorney defending a man accused of domestic violence would use.
Prosecutor Debra Pomodore downplayed the danger to Mrs. Sheehan. According to the Times, she argued, “Of the nearly four million women abused each year by their husbands in the United States, only 500 to 600 killed them.”
Only? If a defense attorney for a domestic abuser had made that argument, prosecutors would have snorted at his callousness.
The prosecution has also tried to portray Sheehan as a loving husband, displaying a photo of the couple imitating the famous World War II Times Square photo while on vacation the year before the murder.
This would have been a central piece of evidence in a domestic abuser’s defense. The prosecution would have pointed out that of course there had been moments of happiness during a 25-year marriage, even in the months leading up to the murder. They also would have argued that a battered woman would have been too intimidated to deny her husband’s request to pose for a picture.
Pomodore, who called battered woman syndrome a pseudoscience, also questioned why Mrs. Sheehan didn’t leave or call the police. But battered woman syndrome is accepted as a defense almost everywhere. “Jacquelyn C. Campbell,” according to the Times, “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.” If Queens had been prosecuting a domestic abuser, someone like Ms. Campbell would have been their expert witness.
The prosecution has also made a big deal of Mr. Sheehan’s insurance policy and the amount of money the family received from it. However, the checks entered into evidence showed them paying off debts like home equity loans, not buying fancy cars or taking family vacations.
According to legal experts quoted by the Times, the legal barrier for Ms. Sheehan’s defense is high. It’s not enough for her to claim years of abuse, they say, but rather she has to have felt in imminent danger.
So it may be true that Mrs. Sheehan may have shaky legal grounds for her murder. But hearing the prosecution downplay the likelihood and severity of the abuse that has been detailed in the courtroom makes me very uncomfortable. It deepens my belief that a trial is not a search for truth but rather a piece of theater, or a political debate where candidates will say whatever convinces the voter to choose him, no matter what the factual or moral basis of the statements. It sounds less like the prosecution of a murderer than a defense of a domestic abuser.
It makes me wonder how Ms. Pomodoro sleeps at night.