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Woman who killed her husband goes free

A grand jury decides not to file first-degree murder charges after hearing about a history of domestic abuse.

By ROBERT FARLEY and KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- Debra Schneider breathed a sigh of relief when detectives told her that her husband Ray was dead from shots she fired into him Jan. 3.

Some saw that as the sign of a cold-blooded killer. She was charged with murder and jailed.

But a different picture began to emerge from friends, family members and the suspect in the following weeks.

Witnesses told of years of vicious physical abuse at Ray Schneider's hand. A friend said Ray once punched Debra so hard, he thought her jaw must be broken. Schneider's own daughter described how he beat her on her 18th birthday just to let her know he was still the boss. But they did not report the abuse to authorities.

On Wednesday, in a rare move, Debra Schneider was freed after a grand jury heard about that abuse and declined to indict her on a charge of first-degree murder.

"It's a pretty good day for her, and it's a pretty good day for battered women," said Linda Osmundson, executive director of CASA, the Center Against Spouse Abuse in St. Petersburg.

People who observe domestic abuse cases say it is uncommon for somebody in Debra Schneider's position not to serve any time.

"Most battered women, in my experience, are convicted and put in jail forever," Osmundson said. She said she was surprised by the grand jury's decision, especially because Mrs. Schneider left no paper trail as evidence of abuse.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, whose office doesn't lose many grand jury cases, said he was okay with its finding.

"I'm not going to second-guess what they did," McCabe said. "I think as long as they do their job, I have to be satisfied with it."

Nor would he second-guess the decision to pursue murder charges against Mrs. Schneider, 47.

"At the time, it was certainly an appropriate charge to place," McCabe said. "I guess what changed that was stuff that developed later on."

What developed later on was testimony from family members and friends about Ray Schneider's physical abuse of his wife and others over the years.

Mrs. Schneider declined to be interviewed for this story. But her testimony before the grand jury was recounted Friday by her attorney, Dave Parry of Clearwater, who said the abuse came to a head the week after Christmas.

Mrs. Schneider had questioned her husband in front of friends about whether they could afford to take a trip that weekend to the Kennedy Space Center. That embarrassed him, she said. When they got home, he beat her, she said.

Schneider, 50, told her the theme of the weekend would be "It's time for me to retrain you." He said she needed to be taught a lesson on how to be a better wife.

He took her car keys and tore up her credit cards. "You don't go anywhere or do anything without me," she says he told her.

On Sunday night, Jan. 2, a discussion of paying bills set him off again, she said. He laid a revolver beside him in bed. He straddled her stomach and told her things needed to change. She said he pulled out the skin on her neck and pierced it with a pin every time she did not answer a question to his satisfaction.

In the early hours of the morning, she thought Schneider was asleep, so she grabbed the gun. She said she planned to hide it in the dishwasher, where she thought he would never look. But she heard him coming down the darkened hallway, heard him yell, "Give me the f---ing gun. I'm going to kill you."

She doesn't remember firing the gun, only a loud ringing in her ears. Schneider was hit by two bullets and died at the scene.

Said Parry: "She was in true fear she was going to be killed. I think it was justifiable homicide."

Dr. Robert Berland, a forensic psychologist from Tampa, also testified before the grand jury on Wednesday. According to Parry, Berland determined after spending 20 hours with Mrs. Schneider that she met the criteria of battered spouse syndrome.

Berland declined to discuss specifics of the case, but explained that battered spouse syndrome occurs when a spouse is repeatedly abused over time. The victim reaches a point of almost total submission and would never tell anyone for fear of further abuse.

"They come to believe he is unstoppable," he said.

Though the Schneider family never told neighbors what was going on, and sheriff's deputies were never called to the home on Timuquana Lane, attorneys working on Mrs. Schneider's behalf collected a mountain of evidence in her favor, said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office defended her before she hired a private attorney.

People from around the country testified she had been abused.

"It wasn't just "Wife gets mad at husband -- wife kills husband,' " he said.

Mrs. Schneider was released from jail Wednesday and has been staying at a hotel, Parry said. Next week, she hopes to go to court to be reunited with her sons, ages 12 and 16, who are being cared for by a friend.

As for Mrs. Schneider, "she's tired and relieved it's over," he said.

The family plans to seek counseling, Parry said, in hopes of returning to some normalcy.

But, he added, "I don't think they know what normalcy is."

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