The Dead Man Is Not on Trial

The Dead Man Is Not on Trial

by Phyllis Chesler

It’s almost as if people expect men to rape, beat, and murder women and children. No one’s surprised when they do, and society tends not to punish them too harshly, if at all. But we don’t expect women to kill, not even in self-defense, and when they do, watch out! The judicial system reacts as if Western civilization’s gonna totter and crumble if even one member of the so-called superior/inferior sex gets away with killing one violent man in self-defense.

If you’re a woman who has killed a white man in self-defense—whether you’re a police officer, like Sheila Ryan DeLuca, or a severely battered wife, like Jayne Stamen—chances are, your story won’t be believed. The jury probably won’t be permitted to hear about the dead man’s history of violence toward you, or toward other women and children.

As lawyers and judges love to say: “The dead man is not on trial, he’s not here to defend himself, we can’t prejudice the jury against him.” So the jury remains in the dark, even if the murdered man previously kidnapped and attempted to rape a teenage girl or killed a man (Larry Quigley) in a brawl (as in DeLuca’s case); even if he repeatedly, and documentably, beat her, placed loaded weapons to her head, shoved shotguns up her vagina, and constantly threatened to kill both her and her family (as in Stamen’s case). The evidence of a man’s previous crimes against female human beings is presumed too “prejudicial;” the “rules of evidence” won’t allow it.

We need to rewrite the rules. Sheila Ryan DeLuca’s case has haunted me for years, not because her case is unique (unfortunately, it is not), but because I knew women who’d known her. Sheila had already served 10 years of her 20-years-to-life sentence for murder when, for the first time, I was told that she was willing to talk to the press and to enlist support for a clemency campaign. In July, I went up to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York to speak to her.

Sheila had a soft, not a tough, demeanor. She’s a “good girl”: middle class, law-abiding, a former nun, a retired police officer, an athlete. She seemed utterly sincere, almost naive. No guile here. No fantasies of salvation through media coverage either. She was friendly, warm, mature, grave, filled with unspoken sorrow. And shame and terror, still.

Newspaper accounts of her trial identified Sheila as a “Black Widow Killer,” not as a former nun or police officer. (Her abductor and rapist, Robert Bissett, was described as a “fireman.”) She was portrayed by Bronx district attorneys Mario Merola and Anthony J. Schepis as being on a “partying spree,” luring the younger Bissett into having sex with her, and then killing him. “She got what she wanted,” Schepis sneered at the trial. “What did Bissett want with a 42-year old, heavyset blonde woman when he’s got his girlfriend? What does she want with a 28-year old good looking fireman?” She was portrayed as if she was a murderous man, someone who might routinely kill members of the opposite sex after having sex with them because they’re all “evil temptresses, dirty whores.”

On April 18,1984, the jury found Sheila guilty of second degree murder and Judge Lawrence Tonnetti sentenced her to 20 years to life. It was a complete shock to Sheila, who had been free on bail for two years; her attorney had assured her there was not enough evidence to convict her. After the trial, she was immediately removed to Rikers Island where she thinks “I must have had a nervous breakdown.”

On August 4, 1994, Judge Robert J. Ward overturned her conviction; as we go to press, Sheila is out of jail, but the district attorney has appealed Judge Ward’s decision. Sheila is not yet a free woman, but for her to even get this far required a campaign for freedom that lasted 12 years and required at least eight “keys” to click open her jail cell. Perhaps analyzing what it took to open that door will inspire more feminists to get involved in a campaign to free Jayne Stamen and other women in prison for killing in self-defense. What did it take to free Sheila?

A FAIR-MINDED APPEALS JUDGE Many women who have been kidnapped, raped, threatened, and terrorized find themselves absolutely unable to speak about what happened to them. However, Sheila heroically overcame her silence and was ready to testify about how and why she had shot Robert Bissett to death.

But Sheila’s lawyer, John Patten, did what most criminal attorneys do. He refused to put his client on the stand, or to call her husband, who, by then, was dying of cancer, or to call any of Sheila’s many and prestigious character witnesses.

Maybe Patten was inexperienced. Or overconfident. Or both. Patten did send Sheila to see Flora Colao, an expert witness in rape trauma syndrome. But Patten’s decision not to allow Sheila to testify meant that he’d laid no foundation for Colao’s expert testimony; and so the judge did not allow it.

Sheila had expected to testify. She was “shocked” when the “defense rested.” Perhaps Sheila was so used to taking orders, that she thought she had to do whatever Patten told her to do. He knew best. However, according to Judge Ward, even if a lawyer advises a client not to take the stand, the client still has the right to do so—and must, in fact, be informed of that right. Patten’s failure to do so constituted “incompetent counsel.” So did his failure to vigorously pursue an “extreme emotional disturbance” defense, an omission that seems incredible when you consider Sheila’s story—the story the jury never got to hear.

On the night of September 21, 1982 and the following morning, Sheila was out celebrating her birthday and her Softball team’s victory. She had just retired after 15 years on the police force. Her usual shift was from midnight to 8 a.m., so it was not unusual for her to be out late. In a sense, Sheila was always “on duty.” When her husband, Peter DeLuca, a newly retired police captain, began to feel sick, she drove him home. (He insisted she return to the party, as she was “the guest of honor.”) Sheila was also keeping a careful, protective eye on a friend, Karyn Travelina, a schoolteacher, who’d had too much to drink and who periodically left the after-hours club to make phone calls, asking Sheila to wait for her and promising to return.

Enter, Robert Bissett, Robert Barrett, and Eugene Murphy: three very loud, aggressive, and drunken men in their late 20s. They tried to pick up Sheila and Karyn, but when rebuffed, they turned nasty and called them “dykes.” (Sheila actually was a closeted lesbian, married to a man who “knew all.”) Hours later, after Karyn had been gone a long time, Sheila decided to look for her. She walked out of the bar and into a nightmare.

“I went to my car and I put the key in,” Sheila told me. “From behind or from somewhere, Bissett comes and grabs me, pushes me into the car, and says ‘We’re going to have some fun. We’re all going to have a party.’ His two friends are with him. I start to struggle with him in the car, and one of his friends shows me a knife. He said, ‘Look here, just do as we say or we’ll cut you. We’ll kill you if you don’t cooperate. ‘They kept calling me ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ and ‘whore.'”

The three men were drunk, snorting cocaine, and smoking what appeared to be angel dust. “Bissett was completely out of control, high to the point of aggressive, hyperactive, wired,” said Sheila. “I just followed orders: drive left, drive right.”

They terrorized Sheila by talking about the women they said they’d had sex with—then killed. They asked Sheila if she’d ever had sex with three men at once, told her they would “cut me to make me big enough.” They said if they killed her, it would be just another “piece of ass wiped out.”

Sheila was paralyzed with fear. She had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. She was a police officer, but back then, when only two percent of the force were women, female officers did not draw frontline duty. They handled kids; they were matrons. They didn’t have male partners and they weren’t trained to fight like men against violent men.

She was forced to drive to the Bronx Park Motel, where the men drank more beer and watched a pornographic movie. Fearing gang rape, she miraculously talked Bissett into sending his friends outside. In so doing, she became psychologically complicit in her own rape: another level of shame. Outside, his friends yelled, kicked in the window, cracked the door, and demanded their turn. The motel manager told his clerk to phone the room and order the group to leave.

“This is your fault,” Bissett told Sheila. “Now, you’re dead. I’m gonna fuck you and then I’m gonna kill you.” Bissett ditched his friends, forced Sheila to drive him to his black Ford van, and then to an abandoned area. In the van, “for what seemed like an eternity,” said Sheila, Bissett raped her, both orally and vaginally. “Then all of a sudden, he was dead weight on top of me.” Bissett had passed out. Sheila managed to slip out of the van and escape.

“I started talking to myself, saying, ‘You’re alive, just forget this ever happened—block it out. Put it behind you—it’s over; you’re alive.'” She telephoned her husband to pick her up, but mistakenly gave him the wrong address and ended up getting home by herself. “I wasn’t keen on talking about it. I guess I felt disgusted and disgusting. I just felt dirty.” She thought she could handle what happened without telling anyone about it.

It wasn’t until hours later, when she found she couldn’t stop showering, or shaking, or crying, that she told her husband Peter that she’d been raped.

Peter insisted that they report the rape (which they did, although the district attorney never pursued the charge). But first, Peter wanted to drive over to the crime location so they could describe it correctly. Trembling in fear, Sheila stuck her off-duty revolver in her belt. Amazingly, the van was still there. More ominously, so was Bissett—who knocked Peter down (“He went flying out of sight.”), and then, cursing and threatening (“You’re dead now”) lunged at Sheila. “I told him to stop. He grabs my arm, and starts pulling me back into the van. It was as if I was being vacuumed back in. I shot him and I shot him and I shot him,” Sheila told me. Bissett was dead.

Self-defense. Extreme emotional disturbance. These are the two defenses that the jury never got to hear, noted Judge Ward, when he overturned Sheila’s conviction on the basis of “incompetent counsel.” But what did it take to get the judge to even review her case?

A MALE RELATIVE WITH A LAW DEGREE Judge Ward might never have had the opportunity to render his precedent-setting decision, if, in my opinion; Sheila didn’t have a male relative, Patrick Gill, who was a lawyer, and who was willing to “vouch” for her, find lawyers for her, and work with them on her behalf.

MONEY MONEY MONEY Sheila also needed enough money (at least $150,000-$200,000 to start with), to pay attorneys John Patten, Allan Dershowitz, and her current lawyers: Mark F. Pomerantz and Warren L. Feldman of Rogers & Wells, and David T. Grudberg of Jacobs, Grudberg, Belt & Dow. Sheila joked that she was “probably the only woman who ever paid to get into Bedford Hills,” as most women get there with public defenders. She also said that Allan Dershowitz, who handled her first appeal, “had no interest in me” once she refused to go on network television with him. As a closeted lesbian and an (uncounseled) rape victim, deception was safe, exposure was dangerous. It would take Sheila 10 years before she’d be willing to talk to the media.

COMPETENT COUNSEL Sheila needed lawyers who knew what they were doing and who would not jettison her after she exhausted her funds. Lawyers Pomerantz, Feldman, and Grudberg were both willing and able to carry Sheila for more than seven years pro bono.

Most women prisoners cannot find good lawyers. Battered wife Jayne Stamen has not yet found one willing and able to represent her pro bono. One of her advocates, feminist Sharon Wyse, who attended her trial, notes that Jayne was only able to scrape together $10,000 for lawyer Adrien Di Luzio—a man whose “counsel,” in my view, was as “incompetent” as John Patten’s, maybe more so.

Essentially, Jayne was forced to endure what Sheila had endured (including rape and gang rape)—but for nine years at the hands of her husband Jerry, who was 17 years her senior. Jayne was almost always drunk, her eyes were almost always bruised, her lip split, often a leg, or one of her arms, was in a cast or a sling. Everyone who saw her saw this—but no one stopped Jerry.

Battered wife Jayne Stamen has been unable to find competent pro bono counsel. Jayne called the police many times; but they never arrested Jerry, according to the amicus brief filed by G. Kristian Miccio on behalf of Sanctuary for Families, National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, The New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and other groups. According to Miccio, Jayne also tried to escape, many times; each time, Jerry tracked her down. She was desperate, had become an alcoholic, and was as crazed with terror as any long-term victim of torture would be. Jayne hired three men to “break her husband’s legs.” Not to kill him. Jayne still “loved” him. She only wanted him to stop torturing her. She thought that perhaps, if he could feel what physical “pain” felt like, he’d stop beating her and her sons. By accident, and against her will, the hired men killed Jerry instead.

Di Luzio did put Jayne on the stand and did present her as “extremely emotionally disturbed.” Though Di Luzio did what Sheila’s lawyer failed to do, there are many ways to be incompetent and no sure recipes for success. According to Wyse, Di Luzio did not prepare Jayne to testify. Jayne had never received counseling as an alcoholic or a battered woman. On the stand, she cursed, wept, and raged; what she said was often incomprehensible or inconsistent. Di Luzio was inconsistent too. Sometimes he told the jury that “she didn’t mean to kill her husband” and other times that “she caused her husband’s death.” He told the jury that Stamen’s thinking was “distorted;” that she was “non-functioning,” “psychologically diseased,” and a “zombie.” Di Luzio “didn’t seem to like his client, his heart wasn’t in it,” notes Wyse. “Di Luzio actually declined the judge’s offer of a mistrial,” reports David Satz, a feminist activist who also attended the trial. “He said there was no money for it!”

On March 21, 1988 Jayne Stamen was convicted and sentenced to eight to 25 years in jail. She has been in jail ever since. In a sense, Jayne has been a prisoner-of-war for 16 years; that’s if you include her nine-year marriage, and I do.

WHITE MIDDLE-CLASS FRIENDS Sheila Ryan DeLuca eventually found competent attorneys and a fair-minded judge. She was a non-battered, lawabiding, educated, middle-class woman with a profession. She had friends who were similarly situated and therefore tended to remain alive and out of jail. Sheila’s friends also had certain crucial middle class “skills”—they were automatically “likable,” credible, and they knew how to “network.”

The loyalty of one such friend was crucial in keeping Sheila’s spirits up. Carol Bozek was a childhood friend who “never gave up” on Sheila. For 10 long years, Bozek, and Toni Iovino, another loyal friend (who kept a room empty for Sheila and called it “Sheila’s room”) kept writing, calling, visiting, and sending packages. This helped Sheila always to remember who she was. Bozek also kept prodding others to visit and write, and apprising them of Sheila’s current legal and psychological status.

Unlike Sheila, Jayne Stamen had few middle-class skills, and no middle-class friends or resources. Jayne was “just” a wife, and because she’d been battered for so long, she was fiercely isolated.

GOOD NETWORKING IN JAIL Another factor in Sheila s favor was her ability to recover her mental health and to maintain an “acceptable” character in prison. She did not become hard, “crazy,” or angry. She expressed remorse for having been forced to take a human life. She was a model prisoner, she knew she needed her guards, clergy, and the warden, as character witnesses in court proceedings and at parole hearings. She impressed these witnesses (and her own lawyers, too) as an easygoing, hardworking, repentant, docile, “likable,” uncomplaining, unhardened, unembittered, non-political, non-troublemaking woman.

DOING TIME Despite all of the above, Sheila had to spend more than 10 years in jail: penance, perhaps, for having killed a white man.

POLITICAL MOVEMENTS Sheila has also benefited from the existence—and the continued existence— of the prisoners’ rights/anti-death penalty movement, and a continuing feminist movement which has educated judges, lawyers, juries, and the media about the nature and prevalence of violence against women and about the rights of convicted prisoners. Constitutional rights alone were not enough to free Sheila; such rights are not equally or automatically applied. Such rights are, shamefully, for sale in America. All things being equal, they often go to the highest white, male bidder.

Consider that in Jayne Stamen’s case Judge Harrington refused to hear from any expert about battered woman’s syndrome; and he refused to consider a justification (justified homicide) defense. According to Miccio, Judge Harrington said: “Because someone sits around and decides, gee, he’s been threatening me for 10 years. One of these days he’s going to shoot me; that does not automatically invoke a justification defense, for the rest of their lives… assuming that the victim was a horrendous person, does not give anyone a license to kill that person.”

We need to rewrite the rules. Although feminists and the media rallied behind Jayne Stamen’s campaign for freedom, they’ve yet to succeed. According to Satz, media coverage may even have encouraged the judge to sentence her harshly. Because of new law-and-order legislation designed to keep those who have committed violent crimes in jail with no exceptions for battered women who kill, Jayne Stamen has not been allowed out on work release or temporary work release.

Sheila needed the eight separate keys I’ve described—plus a good dollop of luck—to “click” open her jail cell. In case all of the above failed to work for a permanent release, Sheila was prepared to “go public,” in the hope that media visibility might then lead to executive clemency, or to legislative reform.

On the eve of Ward’s decision, a woman whom Bozek had kept apprised of Sheila’s plight came forward. The woman, Dr. Eleanor Pam, had the motivation, the compassion, the skills, and (through her husband) the right legal and political connections to organize a pro bono media campaign for Sheila. Media visibility can sometimes create a climate that may lead to executive clemency {although it never helped Jean Harris—who was freed only when Governor Cuomo thought she might die while undergoing heart surgery). Pam set to work, almost full time, a month before Ward rendered his decision, calling journalists, TV networks, politicians, Hollywood producers, and feminist activists—including myself and Kate Millett.

Good Samaritans like Pam may do something like this only once in a lifetime, and then only for someone with whom they have a personal connection. But every woman wrongfully imprisoned needs such a skillful and well-connected volunteer in her corner.

Pam’s skills and connections might have accomplished nothing had Sheila herself not been willing to “go public.” Media is tricky for a prisoner. Too much publicity can anger wardens, judges, and district attorneys (we’re talking about a woman, not about OJ. Simpson). Just the “right” amount of media, in the right place, at the right time, might persuade the state not to reprosecute someone like Sheila, to let her go on the basis of “time served.”

Obtaining “justice for all” means that we must do so not only for ourselves, or for those whom we know or “like-,” but for the downcast, outcast, strangers in our midst; it is the noblest of quests, and best undertaken with the utmost humility. One must remain unencumbered by ulterior or unexamined motives; one must have no expectation of victory and seek no secondary rewards. Such a quest must never endanger, only inspire, all those who still remain behind bars.

Media coverage (like this column, like a movie about one woman who “gets out”) isn’t enough. Without legal briefs and judicial decisions, loyal supporters, an ongoing political analysis and movement, “media coverage” is at best, irrelevant or illusory.

A decade ago, the world wasn’t ready to hear Sheila or Jayne’s stories. They are only two among thousands of women behind bars today. In a sense, they are our unsung political prisoners—resistance fighters who tried to save their own lives in a culture that preaches equal justice under the law but practices something else entirely. We need to rewrite the rules.

Editor-at-large Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D. is the author of seven books, including Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial and the recently published Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness.