The Battered Woman’s Defense

In the case of People vs. Sheehan, Barbara Sheehan was recently found not guilty in the shooting death of her husband, which happened two and a half years earlier in their home. The Battered Woman’s Defense was offered as the defense to the second degree murder charge, stemming from years of domestic abuse inflicted upon Sheehan by her husband. As an experienced Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney, it is important to understand the difference between self-defense, where a person is in imminent danger of a lethal assault and domestic violence where there is a history of physical abuse and threats. It is also important to be aware that this defense can apply to both males and females.

There are a small number of situations where self-defense can be argued as justification for using violence to protect ones self. A common requirement for this defense is that a lethal assault is “imminent” to justify a victim in killing another person and it’s relation to the “duty to retreat”. These two concepts limit a person’s right to use deadly force in self-defense. An example of “imminent” danger would be where an intruder enters your home with a weapon drawn. The option of calling the police and risking the police not arriving in time would place the homeowner in grave danger. Therefore, the homeowner may use lethal force in order to defend himself and any other innocent people sharing the home. On the other hand, the “duty to retreat” might apply in a situation outside of the home where a person could avoid getting hurt or killed by leaving the scene.

Domestic violence differs in important ways from the self-defense explanations described above. Domestic violence often involves a victim who lives in the same home as her attacker and thus the attacker is not an intruder and also, domestic violence is usually an ongoing situation, not a one-time situation that someone can get away from. Thus, women who kill their batterers to defend their own lives do not act in ways that follow the typical self-defense rule.

In People vs. Sheehan, Mrs. Sheehan testified that she had endured years of domestic violence, including her husband throwing scalding pasta sauce at her and bashing her in the head with a telephone when she tried to call 9-1-1. She further testified that on one occasion, while on vacation in Jamaica, her husband slammed her head into the stone wall of the hotel repeatedly and she ended up in the hospital. Leading up to her husband’s death, Barbara Sheehan testified that she had told her husband that she would not be going on vacation to Florida with him. He became progressively more violent and menacing and ultimately pointed a gun at her and threatened to kill her. On the day that Barbara Sheehan killed her husband, he had pointed the gun at her and told her he was going to kill her but didn’t pull the trigger. At that point, Barbara Sheehan went and got one of her husband’s guns and went to the bathroom where he was shaving, with his gun sitting next to him on the counter, and shot him.

On the issue of “imminence”, as it applies to this case, Mrs. Sheehan felt the need to act in advance of a direct threat to her life, rather than waiting for the threat to become imminent. However, does this violate her duty to retreat to safety? In reality, women who leave a violent relationship can actually trigger more violence and statistically, are more likely to be killed. The legal system is not well designed to protect an individual from an ongoing and escalating threat directed specifically at them.

The reason to require imminence in these types of situations is to ensure that violence against the assailant is necessary to protect your own life and “retreat” serves the same purpose. If you can safety retreat from an assailant, you should do so.

In the Barbara Sheehan is was made clear to the jury that there was no where she could retreat to where her husband wouldn’t find her and further that she knew and was sure that he would kill her, if she hadn’t killed him first. Thus the “Not Guilty” verdict.

If you would like to know more about domestic violence or self-defense, contact Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney William M. Weinberg at his Irvine, California office at 949-474-8008 or at