The Defender

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Rhode Island Superior Court judge John F. Sheehan, who twice defended Newport socialite Claus von Bulow against charges of attempted murder, died October 24 after undergoing surgery. Sheehan was seventy-three; his last day on the bench was October 11.

Sheehan was appointed to the Superior Court in 1988 after a long career as a defense attorney. “Trial work is for the young man,” he told the Providence Journal at the time. “Each case takes a little out of you. When you’re waiting for that jury to come back [with a verdict], a little bit of you dies.”

Von Bulow, Sheehan’s best-known client, reportedly hired him at the suggestion of then–U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell after von Bulow was accused of twice trying to kill his heiress wife, Sunny, by injecting her with insulin. The 1982 trial was a media circus, but Sheehan yielded most of the press attention to a flashier member of the defense team, New York City lawyer Herald Price Fahringer. “What most people don’t know,” the Providence Journal wrote that year, “is that Sheehan, the man wearing reading glasses who sits next to von Bulow in court every day, was the main architect of the von Bulow defense, the man who found and interviewed most of the defense witnesses and who prepared virtually all of the pretrial motions in the case.”

The jury found von Bulow guilty, but the conviction was thrown out on a technicality, and when the case was retried in 1985, Sheehan was the only member of the original defense team to remain. Joining Sheehan on the second defense team was Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who in Reversal of Fortune characterized Sheehan as a member of a Rhode Island “old-buddy network” of lawyers and judges open to private deals. Sheehan denied the charge.

Known for wearing tweed jackets and smoking filterless Chesterfield cigarettes, Sheehan often worked past midnight during the second trial and slept only five hours a night, according to a 1985 Journal profile. He dramatically persuaded the judge to bar a doctor’s testimony that scratch marks found on Sunny von Bulow’s arm indicated a struggle. Sheehan, who had inflicted similar scratches on his own arm, approached the witness stand, rolled up his left sleeve, and asked the doctor to definitively identify the cause of the scratches. The doctor, of course, could do no such thing. “Mr. Sheehan, uncharacteristically reticent, said he would wait until the trial ended to tell how he was injured,” reported the New York Times. Von Bulow was later acquitted.

Sheehan served as a U.S. Army paratrooper during World War II. A few courses shy of receiving a Brown undergraduate degree, he nevertheless graduated from the Boston University School of Law. He operated a one-man law practice during most of his career as an attorney, defending several accused murderers and organized-crime figures. For instance, he won an acquittal in 1987 for Stanley Henshaw III, who was charged with operating a prostitution ring whose employees included Brown students. State flags flew at half-staff after Sheehan’s death. He is survived by his wife, Mary; a son; and a brother.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
January / February 2003