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Monday, June 3, 2019

The Battered Wife Syndrome

     Traditionally, courts have not recognized the battered-wife syndrome as a valid defense in homicide trials in which a battered wife kills her abusive husband at time when she is not being attacked. To successfully employ self-defense in a homicide case, the defendant must prove by a preponderence of the evidence that deadly force was necessary to avoid the imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death. Under standard self-defense rationale, the careful planning and execution of an abusive husband's death is first-degree murder. (Crime historians believe that before the science of toxicology, wives were able to dispatch abusive husbands by slowly poisening them to death.)

     For years activists concerned with domestic violence have lobbied courts and legislatures to make the battered-wife syndrome a valid murder defense in cases where the defendant was not in immediate danger of serious bodily injury or death.


Queens, New York

     In 2008, 47-year-old Barbara Sheehan shot and killed her abusive husband, the retired New York City police sergeant she had been married to for twenty-four years. Charged with first-degree murder, Sheehan went on trial in September 2011. The defendant took the stand and described years of marital abuse and terror.

     According to the Sheehan prosecution, the morning the defendant killed her husband, she was on the computer looking for travel bargains. The assistant district attorney called the killing a "self-serving execution." On October 5, after deliberating three days, the jury found Sheehan not guilty. Proponents of the battered-wife defense see this case as a referendum on this issue. The Sheehan acquital raises a difficult legal question: Is the premeditated killing of someone who will hurt you in the future self-defense or first-degree murder?

Memphis, Tennessee

     In 1985, Gaile Owens hired a hitman to kill her abusive husband. Found guilty of first-degree murder, she was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection. Last July the governor of Tennessee commuted her sentence to life in prison. In September 2011, the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole released Owens from prison after twenty-six years behind bars. The hitman is still serving his time for the contract killing. Notwithstanding the fact that no crime is more cold-blooded than murder-for-hire, the general feeling in Tennessee is that Gaile Owen's sentence of death, under the circumstances, exceeded her crime.

     The message here may be this: If you're a battered woman, call for help. Do not call a hitman. But if you do, and get caught, call the lawyer who represented Barbara Sheehan.   

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