NEW YORK (PIX11) — Six years ago, Barbara Sheehan made a fateful choice: kill or be killed.
After suffering abuse for nearly two decades at the hands of her husband, a retired sergeant with the NYPD, she tried to escape her home. But it all ended in a hail of bullets. We have followed Barbara from her arrest, through her trial for murder, to her imprisonment for five years on a gun possession charge. We spoke to her exclusively behind bars where she is mounting her final plea for justice.
“There are nights I wake up and I can feel him breathing on me. I feel his hands around my neck.” You can see as Barbara Sheehan drifts to another place when she recounts the horror of the years with her husband Ray. The verbal and physical abuse, the mental torment, all play out across her face.
It’s been six years since Barbara Sheehan, a wife and mother, ended 18 years of domestic violence by firing 11 bullets at her retired cop husband inside their Howard Beach home. “He said, ‘I’m gonna find the kids and kill them in front of you, and then I’m going to kill you and your family.’ And he had me convinced that that was what he was going to do. He would bring pictures home from the crime scenes of mutilated women and say, ‘I can do this.’”
And so after a night and morning of violence, Barbara decided she finally needed to flee to save her life. But she was confronted by Ray Sheehan with his department-issued 9 mm Glock in his hand. “He aimed it at me, and tried to kill me. I went to the bedroom and picked up the other one laying there. He opened the door and aimed it at me. And he was going to kill me. And I picked up my gun and shot him first. I don’t know how else it could have ended.”
In the end, she was acquitted of the murder of Ray Sheehan, but with legal twists many can’t comprehend, convicted of possessing one of her husband’s guns used in defending herself.
Although the nightmare of abuse is finally over for Barbara Sheehan, it’s only the beginning of another. She’s now serving out a five year sentence at the Albion Women’s Prison near the Canadian border; with work release she could have been out in eight months.
Mario Vrendenburg, a legal advocate with the New York State Prisoners’ Assistance Center discussed the seemingly contradictory verdict. “The judge said he was rendering the decision to deter others from similar acts.” But that leaves domestic violence advocates to ask what other acts he could have been referencing since Sheehan was the victim of domestic violence.
“Right. So he was deterring other women from defending themselves,” says Vrendenburg, his head shaking.
That’s left Sheehan to turn to the court of public opinion to help her gain her freedom, using an on-line petition at Change.org and JusticeForBarbara.org. Vredenburg’s legal advocacy group will submit the plea for pardon, asking New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for clemency. “With work release she would have been out in eight months.”
Vredenburg recounts the facts in the case: Sheehan was defending herself from domestic violence, was acquitted of murder, and could serve out the remainder of her sentence at home saving the taxpayers nearly half a million dollars in incarceration costs.
Barbara has been incarcerated now for eight months. She chooses her words carefully, as though trying to maintain her composure about her seemingly senseless sentence, “While not taking my crime away, but allow me to serve my time at home. Even the judge said during the sentencing he knows I wasn’t in trouble before, I won’t be again. People here with priors are serving one to three for the same charge.”
But clemency is a power sparingly used by governors. Last year, Governor Cuomo granted it to just three offenders who’d already served all their time, in some case decades ago. Former Governor David Paterson was the most generous in recent memory, granting 38 petitions. “I think there are people who are incarcerated where there is no good reason or benefit to keeping them there.” And he explains how during his two years in office he recruited a group of legal experts to review cases for pardon, and make recommendations, adding he never wanted to use the power frivolously and needed a stringent review process.
I press further. “So this one, or crimes like it, deserve a deeper look?” Without hesitation, the governor responds. “Absolutely.”