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The lawyer for a woman who bludgeoned her own mother and grandmother to death with a nightstick claims that the murders were the culmination of decades-long abuse.
Heather Barbera, 43, was sentenced to 42 years in prison earlier this month for the 2018 murders of 67-year-old Michelle Gordon and 87-year-old Elaine Rosen, whom Barbera killed in the Ventor, New Jersey condo where they all lived before stealing their cash and credit cards.
During her sentencing, Barbera apologized in court as tears ran down her face, according to the Press of Atlantic City. She stated, “I never wanted any of this to happen.”
Attorney James Leonard, who represents Barbera, told Oxygen.com in an interview that his client “has expressed remorse at every turn.”
He told Oxygen.com, “The Heather Barbera that I came to know, to me, is not somebody that you can even fathom would be involved in something like this.”
Leonard called Barbera soft-spoken, respectful, and good-natured — but admitted that “obviously the description of what happened is in sharp contrast to that.” However, he went on to say “she should not be judged by what happened in that very brief but very violent encounter. That does not define her, she’s a lot more than that.”
As he did in the courtroom, Leonard pointed toward years of alleged abuse and toxicity for the eruption of familial violence in 2018.
Leonard claimed that Barbera’s mother ”started a confrontation with” his client on the day of the murders, which began as verbal but soon turned physical. While he didn’t specify what the argument was sparked by, he said there was not “anything unique about what started the fight.” He added that Barbera’s relationship with her mother was the most toxic, while her relationship with her grandmother was also toxic but to a much lesser degree.
Leonard told Oxygen.com that Barbera has “been accustomed to” abuse since childhood and that it wasn’t easy for her to cut her family out of her life, despite wishing that she had made that choice now. He said that she grew up in a household full of substance abuse and untreated mental illness.
“When a person has a parent like that, they are constantly seeking approval,” Leonard offered as an explanation. “It’s her mother, it’s her parent. It’s somebody that is very important in their lives so they withstand all that and it’s unnatural to cut your parents out of your life.”
Leonard told Oxygen.com that “people have to understand it’s OK to walk away from a toxic situation. In many cases, it’s much healthier to walk away and eliminate those relationships.”
Judge Bernard DeLury did not appear to have much sympathy for Barbera or her lawyer’s claims that the murders stemmed from toxic familial relationships. Instead, he called the murders “exceedingly violent” when he handed down the sentence.
"After her violent attack on these two women, the defendant callously and calmly cleaned herself up, collected the valuable belongings she could find, including a ring from the hand of her dead mother, and then pawned the jewelry," DeLury said.
He went on to say, "the depravity is palpable,” according to the Press of Atlantic City.
Prosecutor Allison Eiselen noted during Barbera’s sentencing that she “just walked away” as the victims lay dying.
“There is no more heinous, cruel or depraved crime than killing one’s own mother and grandmother,” she said. She added that Barbera’s family members took her and her two children in and gave them a place to live before she brutally killed them and robbed them.
Leonard told Oxygen.com that Barbera is currently estranged from her two children, who he described as pre-teen and teenage, but that she is “passionate” about having a good relationship with them and breaking the cycle of dysfunction. He said he hopes her children will give her a chance to explain her actions that fateful day.
Meanwhile, Leonard said that many of his client’s other family members have supported her throughout the ordeal.
“A lot of times people will abandon a loved one or a friend who is accused of something like that,” he said. “Family members on both sides of the family, both her father’s side and the mother’s side, as well as childhood friends were in her corner and were very passionate about making sure she is OK. They know what’s in her heart and they know what drove this incident.”
Barbera’s husband, Jimmy Scott Thompson, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he wants to help his wife appeal the sentence. He said he thinks that she should only get 20 years for manslaughter. She pleaded guilty in October to aggravated manslaughter and murder.
“People may find that odd that you can sympathize with her after what she’s done, but when you understand what made that moment happen and you can kind of understand that it was inevitable,” Leonard told Oxygen.com.
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