broadsideblog

Barbara Sheehan Acquitted — Another Victim Of Intimate Terrorism

In behavior, Crime, domestic life, family, news, women on October 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm
21 Leader, Michael Dowd

Lawyer Michael Dowd, expert in battered woman syndrome...Image by WeNews via Flickr

Here’s a lousy idea – decriminalizing domestic violence, as Topeka, Kansas authorities are considering.

For the past few weeks, New York has been watching the trial of a Barbara Sheehan, a policeman’s wife, who shot her husband after years of abuse.

I wish we’d re-name domestic violence for what it really is – intimate terrorism. The victims who survive it suffer hidden, constant, terrifying abuse few of us could possibly imagine, let alone overcome.

Her lawyer is Michael Dowd, known nationally in the U.S. as the go-to guy for these horrific cases. From a recent profile of him in The New York Times:

For the last 30 years, Mr. Dowd has defended battered women who have killed their husbands, sometimes with a carving knife, a semi-automatic handgun or a machete. He has done so many of these cases that he has been called the “black widow lawyer” by some of his peers.

“It is very emotionally difficult to take such cases; they really get to me,” said Mr. Dowd, 69, who addresses the court in an avuncular, booming voice that seems calculated to disarm jurors. “This may be my last one.”

For Mr. Dowd, his seminal battered-woman case occurred in 1987, when he marshaled a self-defense argument to secure an acquittal for Karen Straw, a Queens woman who stabbed her husband to death after he had raped her at knife point in front of her two children. Ms. Straw had sought a protection order, and the case drew national attention to the moral conundrum of abused women who kill their aggressors.

Mr. Dowd, the father of three daughters, has since defended nearly two dozen women who have killed their husbands; only one served prison time, and the rest were either exonerated or received lesser sentences. His main legal weapon has been the so-called battered-woman defense, in which the abused woman who has killed her spouse recounts the horrors of her abuse in graphic detail to prove to the jury that she reasonably feared for her life.

I interviewed Dowd for my book about women and guns, “Blown Away”, which included the toxic effects of gun violence on women’s lives (in addition to the legal pleasures of gun use for women.) These women, he told me in 2003, are more like soldiers in combat — facing constant threats to their life — than wives.

I came away better understanding when and why some women finally choose to kill their abusers, usually someone who has been tormenting them, physically and psychologically — and threatening her family, friends, children and pets with violence or annihilation — for years, if not decades. This was the case for Sheehan, as well.

I spoke to several of these women for my book. While in a bathroom in a Texas library, one woman told me her tale, of the husband who kept a loaded shotgun beneath his side of the bed and of her own father who refused to give her shelter or financial help to allow her to flee.

Or the woman who, trying to flee her abusive Midwestern husband, parked her car in a friend’s garage to hide her location, but he hunted her and found her. She shot him at point-blank range. She did not go to prison.

Why don’t these women “just leave”?

Because when they do, their enraged male partners hunt them down and kill them.

Sheehan, after a deadlocked jury kept deliberating, was acquitted this week.

  1. I never really understood crime and personal tragedy until I worked for a police department, and I certainly couldn’t comprehend how widespread it was (growing up in my white upper middle class life). I was so puzzled why abused women stayed with their tormentors until I helped with one case where the wife had been so broken down, her personality and self so eviscerated by her husband that only a shell remained. It was frightening.

  2. It is very, very hard to understand — unless or until you have lost your own sense of self(confidence.) I was the victim of a con man in 1998 who had done jail time in Illinois for the same crimes there with women and no one could imagine me becoming prey like that. No one really understood — least of all I — how vulnerable, lonely, isolated and self-hating I felt then.

    These women live lives of abject terror.

  3. Caitlin, I am so sorry you had to go through that time in your life. Thank God you now have a wonderful man who loves you so much and is good to you.

  4. Thanks, Ann. It certainly taught me a lot!

  5. Yes, the bad things can teach us and make us stronger when we don’t allow them to take us down. We become wiser and happier. We can be proud of ourselves and grateful for God’s son who is always with us; and when need be carrying us. He has brought me out of some dark times and I am grateful.

  6. I am a volunteer Bridge Advocate with a DV shelter in KC, MO. I go to hospitals to meet with these victims nearly everyday. It’s heart breaking to see what they and their kids go through. I’m glad Mrs. Sheehan was acquitted. I only hope she doesn’t do any time on the gun conviction. The abuse may not happen everyday, but the victim is always wondering when it will happen next and will they survive it. If you need help, please call 1-800-799-help. There are people that care and will help get you out of it…

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