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Oct 06 2011

Acquittal of Queens Woman Who Murdered Her Husband Shows Value of Creative Effective Lawyering

OK, this blog post is not about whether Barbara Sheehan should have been convicted of murder for using two guns to shoot her husband 11 times. Her jury decided that she should be found not guilty and they did so today after being deadlocked for awhile.
We can argue till we’re blue in the face about whether her revising her son’s book report and doing other menial tasks shortly before the shooting is proof that she was not in fear of her life. We can talk about how the evidence showed that on the way home from an Upstate trip that day, the family had to stop off at a local hospital to treat her broken nose, which she said was broken when her husband indiscriminately hit her in the face with the back of his hand. The prosecution showed “loving family” photos, the defense had their two natural children testify that Dad was a monster who nearly drove one of them to suicide. So it came down to whether a jury believed that her husband pointed a gun at her head and said he was going to kill her later for refusing to take a trip to Florida with him and that she felt she had to kill him first. I personally find the story flimsy but I was not in the jury box.

In speaking to some folks who did observe much of the trial and who are courthouse regulars in Queens County, their verdict was that Michael Dowd just out-lawyered the Assistant District Attorneys who tried the case. Michael Dowd came up with the “Battered Woman Syndrome” defense decades ago and has used it in countless trials since; mostly successfully. Dowd was facing indictment back in the 80’s for being involved in a contract fixing scheme with then Queens Borough President Donald Manes. Dowd decided to “sing” for the prosecution and was the key witness in a number of cases that brought down the Koch administration in its third term. Many folks went to jail, Manes killed himself. Dowd was suspended from the practice of law and when he got reinstated, he achieved notoriety by getting an acquittal for woman using the BWS defense.

In the Sheehan trial, he started the process of winning over the jury in jury selection and continued by controlling the courtroom and conceding what he could not refute and keeping the jury focused on his defense. This was a very difficult verdict to achieve and as experienced as the prosecutor may be, when all you have done your whole life is prosecute cases, your experience is limited. You get a particular mind-set that is hard to move away from and you may not be able to lose that perspective. Dowd’s life experience and his carefully crafting of this defense over the many years he has plied it in court was too much for the prosecutor.

Curiously, it was the victim’s twin brother who understood the courtroom dynamics in cases like this saying this after the verdict:

Asked if his brother would be able to rest in peace, he said: “I think the truth is what makes you rest in peace — not what 12 citizens say about it. But this is the system and you’ve got to live with it. The facts of the case and the true events didn’t really reflect the verdict.People make decisions based on emotion.”

It’s a quote worth remembering for any trial lawyer, that a strong emotional appeal and a focused “theory of the case” that resonates with the jury can go along way to helping them see things your way.

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