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Two Battered Wives, Two Confessed Murders, Two Women Now Free

Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Two women, who in separate cases confessed to killing their husbands and made headlines for their sensational murder trials, were freed just one day apart after they each employed a controversial and difficult defense, claiming that years of abuse led them to murder.

Barbara Sheehan, a New York City school secretary, who admitted shooting her police officer husband 11 times with two of his own pistols, was acquitted of murder Thursday, after claiming she had been abused for years and feared for her life on the morning of Feb. 18, 2008.

On Friday, Gaile Owens of Memphis walked out of the Tennessee prison cell where she's been held since being convicted in 1985 of hiring a stranger to kill her husband. After 26 years of appeals from death row, Owens was paroled when new evidence that she had been the victim of sustained domestic abuse was revealed.

Both cases were critical tests of the so-called battered-woman defense, in which attorneys argue that a history of abuse led their clients to kill.

Legal experts say the battered-woman defense is a tough case to make for attorneys.

"It's not easy. A battered-woman defense is always an uphill climb," defense attorney Gloria Allred, who didn't represent either woman, told ABC News. "There are a lot of questions her lawyers are going to need to answer for the jury. Why didn't she report the abuse? Did she tell anyone?"

Allred said juries are often unsympathetic to women they believe should have left their husbands sooner, rather than turn to murder later.

Owens, whose death penalty conviction was reduced to life in prison last year, was granted parole last week, and she walked free Friday. At her 1985 trial, she did not talk about being physically and sexually abused by her husband, claiming later she didn't want to expose her young sons to the truth about their father.

On Thursday, a jury acquitted Barbara Sheehan of murder, but convicted of her of illegal possession of a firearm.

"There's no joy today," Sheehan's attorney Michael Dowd told reporters outside the courthouse. "The only thing that can bring joy to this family would be to bring them back 17 years before the first blow was struck."

Sheehan admitted to shooting her husband after a fight in which he threatened her if she did not accompany him on a trip to Florida. Sheehan claimed she had been seriously beaten on a trip a few months earlier to Jamaica and was reluctant to leave her home.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said neither side could claim victory and called on battered woman to go to authorities when they are first abused.

In 2010, a New York woman accused of murdering her husband successfully used the battered woman defense and was acquitted. Shanique Simmons had been routinely abused by her husband and was even raped, she testified. Simmons stabbed her unarmed husband in the hallway of their Bronx apartment, but claimed self defense.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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