A woman accused of killing her husband, a retired New York police officer, fell apart on the witness stand Wednesday _ weeping, clutching her chest, gagging and gasping for air _ when asked to pick up a gun prosecutors say she used to shoot him in their home.
"I'm afraid I'm going to get sick," Barbara Sheehan said, barely able to glance at the .38-caliber revolver that lay on the witness stand next to her. "I don't want to do it."
The 50-year-old woman from the Howard Beach section of Queens has been charged with murdering Raymond Sheehan, a former New York Police Department sergeant. Barbara Sheehan said he was an abusive, reckless, terrifying man.
Prosecutors say she shot her husband 11 times using two handguns that he kept loaded. She has pleaded not guilty and says the shooting, which has drawn the attention of domestic violence activists, was self-defense.
Assistant District Attorney Debra Pomodore hammered Sheehan with questions about her husband's life insurance policies and the moments leading to the shooting during of cross-examination. She also asked about a 911 call made by Sheehan's sister, in which a woman who sounds like Barbara Sheehan says in the background, "He was laughing at me ... and boom! boom! boom!"
The trial started two weeks ago, and it was Sheehan's third day on the witness stand.
Sheehan was often contradictory and claimed to not remember signing checks her two children had written to her _ proceeds from their father's life insurance policies. She said that they helped her pay the bills, but that she did not specifically benefit from the money. The children got hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The children, Jennifer, 25, and Raymond, 21, have both said that their father was abusive, and that they lived in fear of him. Raymond testified later Wednesday of a palpable tension in their home and broke down in tears as he described witnessing the abuse, from the time he was a child until shortly before his father's death.
Once, he testified, he walked downstairs to see his mother covered in pasta sauce, her shirt off, sitting on the kitchen floor after she had argued with his father.
"She was always very nervous, very jumpy and jittery," he said of his mother. "You never wanted to set him off. ... Anything would set him off."
Jennifer was also expected to testify. The children wept with their mother as she composed herself in a courtroom pew after she was asked to hold the revolver. The women wore purple to show support for victims of domestic violence. Many others in the courtroom wore the color, as well.
Prosecutors sought to show that on the day of the shooting _ Feb. 18, 2008 _ Sheehan was not fearful for her life. She proofed her son's school paper, drank coffee and made travel arrangements for a trip to Florida.
She testified that she didn't want to go with her husband on vacation but was pretending to out of fear because he had said he'd kill her if she didn't come. The fight touched off the fatal argument.
He dragged her out of bed the morning of the shooting and threw her out of the house in her pajamas, saying she couldn't come back until she agreed to go with him, she testified. She stood outside for nearly an hour in the winter cold before agreeing to come.
The retired officer kept loaded his loaded service weapon, a Glock handgun, and an off-duty gun, the revolver. Often he kept one holstered to his side, the other on his ankle.
"Living with the man I lived with, I tried to survive the best I could," she testified.
Pomodore asked repeatedly whether Sheehan ever called 911 or a domestic violence hotline in the hours leading to the shooting. The answer was always no.
After her husband got into the shower, she left to go to a friend's house, where she was frantic.
"I didn't know what to do," she said.
She went back home to get the $1,700 in cash she had stashed in her drawer and said she planned to tell her husband she was going to get dog food but never come back. She saw the revolver in the bedroom, took it and walked to the hall. Raymond Sheehan, 49, was in the bathroom, recently showered, the Glock by his side on the vanity.
That's when the encounter occurred.
During testimony, Barbara Sheehan was barely understandable through tears, her head down, her face in her hands, shielding her eyes from Pomodore, as she said he pointed the gun at her and she fired.
"I don't know what I was thinking then; I was so scared," she said. "I thought he'd come after me and kill me."
Prosecutors sought to suggest he did not point the gun at her, and noted he never fired.
"I could see his face, and his eyes, and his hand and the gun," she said, her voice rising with every word. "I knew he was going to kill me."
But Sheehan would not answer specific questions, such as where she was standing when the shooting happened, how she ended up with both guns, and whether she pulled one from a holster.
"Was he naked?" Pomodore asked.
"I don't know," Sheehan wept.
"Was he shaving?" Pomodore asked.
"I don't know."
"What was he wearing?"
"I don't know."
On several occasions, Pomodore asked Sheehan to show the jury how she held the gun at her husband, and each time she said she was physically unable to do it. The revolver sat on the witness stand, and Sheehan cowered from it.
"Does this have to be there?" she asked.
"It's part of evidence," answered acting Queens State Supreme Court Justice Barry Kron.