Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

Barbara Sheehan Speaks

By Patricia Adams

This week The Forum brings you an exclusive interview with Barbara Sheehan, who is charged in the shooting death of her husband, retired NYPD Sgt. Raymond Sheehan.

Sheehan and her attorney, Michael Dowd, speak candidly about his murder, and how a judge’s recent decision could destroy their defense strategy.

The mother of two has been free on $1 million bail since the February 2008 shooting at the family’s Howard Beach home and is expected to stand trial in early 2010.

For the first time the defense speaks about questionable behavior by attorneys for the prosecution and discusses how the judge’s disapproval of Dowd’s tactics may affect the case.

The murder sent shockwaves through the quiet community but has since faded from the headlines. However, a recent decision by the judge in the case has thrust the story back into the news.

“We’re in trouble.” That is how defense attorney Michael Dowd describes what he terms the devastating consequences of the decision handed down by Justice Arthur Cooperman which will prohibit the testimony of expert witnesses in establishing the post traumatic stress disorder and battered woman’s syndrome defense in the murder trial of his client, Barbara Sheehan.

In the decision handed down on November 10, Cooperman cited “defense counsel’s disregard of this Court’s orders,” and “transparent excuses for delay and for disrupting a July 28 interview.” But Dowd says those claims are absolutely not true. “We went a long way to try to get the information about this case and the history to the psychologist. I personally spoke to Barbara’s family and friends urging them to cooperate by speaking with the prosecution psychologist, Dr. Kathy Yates,” he said.

Dowd explained further that there was some hesitancy at first because prosecution attorney Debra Pomodore had stated to a neighbor that Barbara was a murderer and that her children were liars. “Despite word of the prosecution’s comments, all of the family, including Barbara’s parents and both of her kids still agreed to speak with Dr. Yates,” said Dowd.

That interview, scheduled for July 28, is now a hotbed of controversy because of a series of events that occurred during the course of the day, subsequently causing the collapse of the process and leading to the “emotional breakdown” of Sheehan. The judge attributed the disturbances to Michael Dowd’s actions on that day, but the attorney says he wasn’t even there until after twelve noon.

“That morning my associate, Niall Giollabhui was there with Barbara. I was to get there later. He was checking out the rooms where the interviews were going to take place. He saw Debra Pomodore sit down on the couch and start talking to Barbara. That violates the disciplinary rules — no attorney is supposed to engage another’s client in conversation, especially an adversary,” said Dowd.

When the attorney crossed the room to find out what was going on, Pomodore told him she was just asking Barbara what she wanted for lunch. Barbara Sheehan didn’t wait long to tell her attorney what had happened.

“I told Niall she [Pomodore] was lying. What she said to me on that couch was “I want you to do your best in there. I know you are a very religious woman and you’re going to tell the truth because you’re so religious. I know you’ll tell the truth and it will all come out,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan continued, “I knew what she was doing. She had never even said hello to me in the courtroom. She never even acknowledged me and now she was talking to me this way... She was using some interrogation techniques... To me she was saying that I had been lying all along and now was the time when I could tell the truth.”

Barbara Sheehan described the encounter with Pomodore and her assistant Donna Aldea as what upset her so deeply on that day. “They’re saying it’s Mr. Dowd’s fault. But he had nothing to do with it. If anything he calmed me down. What caused problems that day was the behavior of Debbie Pomodore and Aldea.”

Sheehan qualified her remarks, “She started to talk loudly walking up and down the hallway — listen, she was saying, this has to get done here today. The room wasn’t ready and the camera was not set up.”

According to Barbara Sheehan, prosecutor Debbie Pomodore was acting wildly. Sheehan went on to say that Pomodore’s rant set her on edge.

“By the time I finally got in with Dr. Yates, I was physically sickened. I broke down with the first question she asked me. I asked permission to go to the bathroom. Aldea, Debbie Pomodore’s assistant was there and followed me to the bathroom. I wanted to be alone in the bathroom; to wash my face and compose myself. But she came right up behind me. I sat there in the stall to be by myself but when I came out she was just standing there waiting for me.”

Prior to the interview there was an abundance of psychological testing conducted by experts hired by Sheehan’s defense team. A judge’s order forced them to share all notes from such interviews with the prosecution prior to trial. “I fought that order because that was in the best interest of my client, but in the end the judge ruled and we had to turn over all the notes. Of course we complied,” explained Dowd.

Now Dowd says he is faced with the monumental task of coming up with a defense that will offer his client what he says is everyone’s entitlement. A fair trial.

At the heart of the objections from the defense team is the fact that the prosecution has all the benefit of the expert testimony from the notes that were provided them however, the same experts will not have the opportunity to explain the complex and dark details of Battered Woman’s Syndrome to a jury of Sheehan’s peers.

“We are not going to get any abuse victims on the jury," Dowd predicted. "The average person could not possibly know the level of sickness that is associated with the abusers and those they batter. Because of this and because the criminal process does not allow for an appeal before a guilty verdict is rendered by a jury, Barbara could very well end up in jail while waiting for an appeal. She simply doesn’t belong there.”

In next week’s edition we will explore the circumstances leading up to the murder, including years of documented battering Sheehan endured, as well as the events of the February 2008 morning when she shot her husband.

Board Rejects Maspeth Antenna Plan

Proposal Moves to Boro Prez Before BSA Eventually Rules

As expected, Community Board 5 unanimously voted against a proposal to place six cellular antennas on top of a Maspeth apartment building. The proposal will move on to the borough president for review before the city ultimately rules on it.

At its meeting last Wednesday in Christ the King High School, Land Use Chairman Walter Sanchez reported to the full board that the committee felt that a “saturated condition” already exists on the roof at 53- 00 65th Place. Companies generally don’t need special approval for cellular antennas, but a variance is needed in this case because the roof already contains antennas for Sprint, Verizon and the 911 system.

Sanchez noted that the new antenna would result in the building exceeding the amount of square footage allowed to be used for cell antennas and said the roof is already damaged from a 2008 fire. There are also concerns over light, noise and long term health impacts that the antennas would have on the residential neighborhood. Finally, the company made no effort to find space on a nearby commercially-zoned building, said Sanchez.

After hearing the Land Use Committee’s recommendation, the full board voted 33-0 to reject the application. A hearing is scheduled before Borough President Helen Marshall on December 3 before the matter is eventually referred to the city Board of Standards and Appeals, which has final say in matters regarding zoning variances.

Residents Annoyed Over Parking Meter Installation

DOT Offers No Reasoning Behind Sudden Action on Eliot Avenue

By Conor Greene

A group of Middle Village residents living on streets off Eliot Avenue are frustrated over the city’s recent decision to install parking meters in an area they previously relied on as a safe, reliable option for parking.

According to residents of 75th Street, the city Department of Transportation suddenly installed the meters along Eliot Avenue between 74th Street and Lutheran Avenue about two weeks ago. Since there are no businesses along that stretch, the parking spaces now sit empty the majority of the time during the week. The spots are now virtually useless to 75th Street residents, who used to park there when their dead-end block was full.

Adding insult to the situation is the fact that the DOT installed the meters with no advance warning to the residents, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley or Community Board 5. Even worse, several residents who parked there before the meters were installed returned to their cars to find tickets on their windshields, according to residents.

The issue was raised at last week’s CB 5 meeting by Dmytro Fedkowskyj of the 75th Street Block Association, who said it is “appalling that members of the community are subjected to impacting and neighborhood change without notification from the city.” He adds that he can “only assume that the genius behind this project never surveyed the area before installing these useless meters,” which go unused from Sunday night to Saturday night “while the rest of Eliot Avenue looks like a parking lot.”

After residents contacted her office, Crowley wrote to the DOT asking who had requested that the meters be installed. She was told she had to submit a letter under the Freedom of Information Law to find out who made the request and is still awaiting a response. In her letter, she noted that the meters “are not needed in this residential area as they provide nothing positive for the community” since there are no stores nearby “where parking meters would be beneficial.”

The DOT press office was unable to provide information to The Forum by press time on Tuesday, including regarding who requested the meters. While the problem has impacted 75th Street residents who used to park there, it has also led to frustration along 74th Street as drivers have begun to head there in search of free parking.

A group of residents gathered along Eliot Avenue on Saturday, at which point the entire stretch of parking was predictably empty. Several drivers pulled up but then drove away when they realized that meters had been installed. “It’s one hundred percent uncalled for – it’s a residential area,” said 75th Street Block Association member Mike White.

“We don’t know why these meters are there,” added Dennis White, president of the block association. “It a burden on the residential areas.”

Miller Opens Woodhaven Assembly District Office

Democratic Assemblyman Mike Miller recently announced the opening of his new district office on Woodhaven Boulevard, replacing his old temporary location on Myrtle Avenue.

The new office address is 83-91 Woodhaven Boulevard, which is located in a newly-constructed building on the northbound side near Park Lane South. Since his election in September, the assemblyman had been operating out of the same building used by his predecessor, Anthony Seminerio.

Miller took office after winning a special election to replace Seminerio, who resigned after pleading guilty to influence peddling in connection. Seminerio was accused of forming a consulting company in order to shake down area hospitals in return for political favors.

Miller’s spokeswoman, Sierra Perez-Sparks, said that the assemblyman began using Seminerio’s old Myrtle Avenue office because it allowed him to immediately begin serving constituents of the 38th District, which includes Glendale, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill and Ozone Park. Now that his operations are up and running, his staff has made the move to their new office in Woodhaven, she said, which is more central to the entire district.

The new office can be reached by phone at (718) 805-0950 or fax at (718) 805-0953. It will be open seven days a week.

Juniper Dog Run Supporters Frustrated Over Lack of Progress

Funding, Location Issues Jeopardize Proposal

By Conor Greene

The controversial push for a dog run in Juniper Valley Park reared its head once again, as supporters of the plan accused community board members of purposely stalling the ef- fort in hopes of preventing the proposal from becoming reality.

Last week’s Community Board 5 meeting began as many have over the past year – with members of the Juniper Valley Park Dog Owners Association requesting that a permanent enclosed dog run be created in the area currently used during off-leash hours. The proposal has been met with backlash from some residents who don’t want space in the park dedicated for a dog run, and a recent study by the city Parks Department estimated the project would cost $750,000.

The mood of last week’s meeting took a contentious turn when association member Kate Burns said she believes “some members of this [CB 5 subcommittee] may be working against the best interests of dog owners.” She said she was invited to join the subcommittee, which was recently formed to explore the idea, but was told “in no uncertain terms that we will never, never get a dog run” in Juniper Valley Park.

Burns added that the co-chair of the committee [Kathy Masi], told her that pushing the idea would result in a “ten year pissing match” with members of the Juniper Park Civic Association, which opposes the plan.

Several other Dog Owners Association members spoke in favor of the proposal, including 18-year-old Tom Scotti, who spoke against board members who are “determined to make sure our dream of having a dog run in Juniper Valley Park will never happen.” He said he grew up near the park, plans to spend his adult life in Middle Village and vowed to continue the fight until the dog run is built.

Joe Pisano, president of the dog association, expressed frustration that after attending CB 5 meetings for 12 consecutive months, little progress has been made. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we are any closer than we were a year ago,” he lamented, adding that he was also told to “forget the idea” because there will never be a dog run in Juniper Valley Park.

“And you wonder why we get so frustrated over this,” continued Pisano. “I really feel this is ridiculous. We really feel like you care less and put us off until we go away. We’re not going away.” He added that board members should “check the personal feelings at the door” and act on the behalf of the community at large.

Finally, John Rowan, who is a former district manager of Community Board 4 and a 22-year Middle Village resident, questioned the process by which the board has handled the group’s request. “I’m concerned about where we’re heading with the park,” he said, questioning why the subcommittee has yet to meet on the issue and why the board’s budget request simply mentioned a dog run within CB 5’s confines. “We don’t want it in CB 5 anywhere, we want Juniper Park,” he said.

Later in the meeting, board District Manager Gary Giordano seemed to pour cold water on the association’s request. He called the group’s initial proposal “huge” and said it would have been as large as a football field. “I honestly was shocked at the magnitude of that,” he said, adding that in his view, there doesn’t seem to be “much interest” in the run outside of the association members.“Maybe something can be worked out, but I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think there is much of a constituency among members of this board for a permanent, all-day run” at that location.

Masi was not at this month’s CB 5 meeting, but later told The Forum that she has been actively working on this issue and denied telling association members in no uncertain terms that it will never happen. However, she suggested that their stance that the run must be located in Juniper Valley Park might lead to an impasse, and said she felt it was best to wait until after the November 3 election before formally moving forward on the issue.

Next month, Masi is scheduled to visit two properties outside Juniper Valley Park that Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley’s office has identified as potential sites for a dog run. She said that association members need to think “a little more globally about this” and keep an open mind about the location.

“In a fiscal crisis, spending all that money is ludicrous and I don’t think anyone in their right mind would put up $750,000 for a dog run,” said Masi. “We want to get this done, but we don’t want to put a dog run in an area where the community won’t be happy about it. I don’t want to please fifty two and offend five thousand... I don’t see huge support from the community for a dog run anywhere.”

Masi noted that while funding for a dog run was included in the board’s capital budget requests, it ranked dead last after members prioritized each item. “If that doesn’t send a message... To dig their heels in the ground and say they only want it in Juniper, if that’s the message, my response is we’re all wast- ing their time. I don’t want to fight with these people, but they have to be a little more global.”

Push for Upgrades Along Rail Corridors Gains Steam

By Conor Greene

An effort to increase the quality of life for residents living along rail corridors is gaining momentum, as civic associations from throughout the area are banding together to address the issue.

Neighbors Mary Parisen and Mary Arnold recently devised a plan entitled Glendale Clean and Green, which aims to address issues relating to the railroad yards and corridors that cut through the area. After presenting their plan to Community Board 5, the women found that other nearby communities are suffering the same types of problems.

To address these issues, which range from emissions coming from idling locomotives, along to noise and safety concerns, a group called Civics United for Railroad Solutions (CURES) was recently formed. It includes various civic groups such as Citizens for a Better Ridgewood, Glendale Property Owners Association, Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, the Juniper Park Civic Association, Maspeth West End Block Association and Citizens for a Better Ridgewood.

After getting word of the effort out to the public, residents from Glendale and surrounding neighborhoods such as Middle Village began contacting the women to get involved, Parisen reported at last week’s Community Board 5 meeting. “They’re facing the same problems we’re facing in Glendale,” she said, noting that a petition effort is underway to pressure elected officials to taking action.

Arnold said that while there are a host of problems related to rail operations, the main focus continues to be on lowering the harmful emissions that spew from the locomotives. “That’s what all of us are breathing when you have diesel engines idling outside your house,” she said, adding that federal grant money is currently available to pay for the conversion of diesel engines. “It’s hard times, but we’re all breathing this air and it’s a problem,” she said.

Middle Village resident Laura Zimmer, who also lives along the rail corridor, said the problem has gotten much worse in recent years. Locomotives now idle in her residential area for as much as two hours at a time, preventing residents from enjoying backyards or hanging laundry outside. “It’s really disturbing... We’re all suf- fering from this,” she said.

Board District Manager Gary Giordano later credited Parisen and Arnold for doing a “yeoman’s job to bring all this to the attention of the elected officials” and said support on the federal level “will be very important.” He is hopeful officials “can come up with an avenue for fund- ing very quickly” to help alleviate the problems.

With state federal funding in mind, CURES recently sent a letter to officials regarding the MTA’s 2010-2014 capital budget and the state Department of Transportation’s 2010-2015 capital budget. The letter asks the agencies “to effect planning, infrastructure, and equipment upgrades in Queens that will better protect the public health and safety and quality of life in communities that presently are bearing serious environmental burdens.”

The letter argues that the “contract between the LIRR’s gleaming double decker passenger rail cars that pass through our neighborhoods and the degraded condition of the LIRR rail corridor, the rail yards, and the freight transportation in our neighborhoods make it crystal clear that our neighborhoods have been neglected and dumped on for too long.” To remedy this, the group wants “state and federal oversight and money coming in here now to upgrade the freight transportation system and environment in Queens.”

The issues CURES seeks to remedy include “unnecessarily high levels of diesel emissions due to old equipment, idling, lack of traffic capacity and lack of ‘last mile’ access,” exposure of residential areas to waste that is being stored in and transported in open cars instead of sealed intermodal containers, open access for vandals to the LIRR rail corridor in an area that includes hazardous chemicals and the Buckeye Pipeline, and storage and transportation of petroleum gas and other hazardous chemicals, which has led to two emergency evacuations of homes in the past three years.

Regarding the problem described by Zimmer, Giordano said he has had a “much more difficult relationship” with New York and Atlantic Railroad than most of the other agencies he deals with. Trains had been parked outside Christ the King High School until the school sued in federal court. Giordano recently contacted the agency to see about having idling trains moved from the residential area near 69th Place, to no avail. “All I wanted them to do was move the switching operation maybe 200 yards south,” he said.

As long as these issues continue to detract from the health and safety of local residents, Parisen vowed that CURES would push for solutions. “You are going to be hearing a lot more about this organization,” she promised.