Many people have been watching this interesting trial in Queens where a woman named Barbara Sheehan, a school secretary, is on trial accused of murdering her husband, Raymond Sheehan. She claimed to have suffered years of abuse and beatings from him, claims that were backed up by her family in the supporting testimony. The family sat on the defense side of the room. On the other side sat her late husband’s twin brother, arms folded, convinced she was telling a big lie just to get herself off.
Here’s what she said happened on that fateful morning. She had been the victim of a particularly bad beating the night before. So now she told him she was leaving him. There were two loaded guns in the bedroom—her husband was a retired policeman—and she grabbed one and told her husband she was taking it with her to protect herself (from him?), at which point, he grabbed the other gun, pointed it at her and said he’d goddamn kill her. Then, she testified, apparently feeling he had made his point, he set his gun down—it’s not clear where he set it—and he went into the bathroom to shave. From this moment on, Ms. Sheehan testified, she was convinced she was never going to get out of this bedroom alive unless she did something. So she snuck up on him in the bathroom and fired all six shots into him with her pistol. He fell to the ground. After that, she got the other gun from where he’d left it and fired another six shots at him. He lay there, half shaven, the water running, dead. She called the police. And that is how the police found things when they arrived.
The case went to the jury. Would she be convicted of Second Degree Murder? She’d gone after him while terrified at what he had said, but nine hours after a beating. The law says if a person feels that another person is about to kill him (or her), a person has the right to kill first and not be found guilty of murder. If that is not the case, a jury is duty bound to bring back a guilty verdict.
The jury, which consisted of nine women and three men, deliberated.
Last Wednesday morning, after a long weekend with people on both sides of this discussing the matter in the jury room and nobody budging, the forewoman passed a note out telling the judge they were hopelessly deadlocked. The judge told them to try to work it out for another 24 hours. Keep at it. Talk began to circulate that this was going to be a hung jury.
On Thursday morning, to everyone’s surprise, the jury announced they had a verdict. She was pronounced Not Guilty of Second Degree Murder. But she was convicted of a lesser charge—illegal possession of a gun, which could put her away for three and a half to 15 years.
Actually, she was found NOT guilty of illegally possessing the first gun she fired. She was only found guilty of illegally possessing the second gun.
Jury forewoman, Barbara Fleisher, spoke to the media outside the jury room and explained this. She said the family’s account of chronic and vicious abuse had rung true.
“We believed she was justified with all the things she went through over the years,” she told The New York Times. Fleisher had no problem with the first murder weapon she used, but said that the jury decided to find Sheehan guilty of possessing the second weapon, since she had shot her husband with that second gun even after he no longer posed a danger to her.
There’s been a lot of blogging about this. What if, when he went into the bathroom to shave, he left his gun on a dresser by the bathroom door so as not to get it wet in the bathroom? What if when she sauntered over with the first gun, she picked that second gun up off the dresser and then as a two gun gunslinger, sauntered into the bathroom and let him have it with both guns blazing away at the same time at point blank range, until finally, he fell dead in that hail of bullets? Eleven of the twelve bullets were found in him, by the way. The twelfth missed.
Would one of those guns be considered a “second gun?” If so, which one? And if not, well, she would have been convicted of nothing and would not have to face a minimum of three and a half years in prison.
On such trivial things does the fate of all of us sometimes hinge.
Ms. Sheehan returned to the courtroom on Wednesday for sentencing, after we went to press.