“Battered Woman Syndrome” to Become Recognized Defense to Homicide? The Door May Have Opened.

Barbara Sheehan

Could a recent acquittal of Barbara Sheehan from Queens have opened the door for deeming “battered woman’s syndrome” a  defense to homicide charge? Time will show.

Barbara Sheehan shot her husband, retired NYPD officer, Raymond Sheehan, 11 times in their home in Howard Beach in February 2008. Although she used two guns, she claimed that she fired in self-defense after he had first threatened her life with one of the guns. Mrs. Sheehan was acquitted of murder, but convicted of gun possession and sentenced to 5 years of jail. Click here for a complete NY Times article.

Barbara Sheehan claimed self-defense based on “battered woman’s syndrome” which she allegedly developed during years of abuse by her husband.

The syndrome is generally considered to have four characteristics:

1. The victim believes that the violence was her fault.
2. The victim has an inability to place the responsibility for the violence elsewhere.
3. The victim fears for her life or the children’s lives.
4. The victim has an irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.

Presently, in New York State, a “battered woman’s syndrome” is not a legal defense to a criminal act, but may be considered as evidence of a defendant’s state of mind or evidence relevant to a defense such concerning justification.

Courts have recognized that expert and opinion evidence regarding batteredwoman syndrome, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder, can assist a jury in analyzing a claim of self-defense. Depending on the jurisdiction’s traditional rules of self-defense and scope of admissibility of expert opinions, testimony on the batteredwoman syndrome may be admissible on the issue of credibility, the issue of the defendant’s subjective belief in the need to defend herself, the objective reasonableness of that belief, and the issue of imperfect self-defense.