Amid self-defense claims, state drops murder charge in Riverview battered spouse case

Attorneys for Sabrina Hendley said she was an abuse victim and feared her husband’s escalating aggression when she shot him in their Riverview home.
Sabrina Hendley appears in a photo provided by her attorney, Todd Foster. State prosecutors this week dropped a murder charge against Hendley after a four-year legal battle in which she claimed self-defense in the shooting of her husband.
Sabrina Hendley appears in a photo provided by her attorney, Todd Foster. State prosecutors this week dropped a murder charge against Hendley after a four-year legal battle in which she claimed self-defense in the shooting of her husband. [ Todd Foster ]
Published May 6, 2022|Updated May 6, 2022

TAMPA — State prosecutors dropped a murder charge Thursday against Sabrina Hendley, who claimed she was defending herself amid a drunken quarrel with an abusive husband when she shot him four years ago in their Riverview home.

After an “extensive review” of the case, prosecutors determined that they could not refute Hendley’s self-defense claim, and that the charges should be dismissed, according to a memo from the office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.

It was a remarkable conclusion to a complicated case that had been fiercely contested since 2018.

Just last year, prosecutors convinced a judge after a lengthy hearing that Hendley was not entitled to immunity under Florida’s stand your ground law. But in the months since, the state consulted experts on domestic violence, whose input led them to conclude that the charges should be dismissed.

Her attorney, Todd Foster, argued that Hendley was a victim of abuse at the hands of her husband, Mark Hendley, and that she killed him after he became increasingly aggressive and physically attacked her father the night of the shooting.

“We were going to litigate the case,” Foster said Friday. “We fortunately didn’t have to, thanks to the courage and commitment of the State Attorney.”

The case became something of a cause, drawing the support of Julie Weintraub’s nonprofit organization, Hands Across the Bay. The organization, which was founded by the Gold & Diamond Source president, thanked Warren in a Facebook post Friday.

“The world just got a little bit safer for victims of domestic violence whether they be men or women,” the post stated.

Some, though, found nothing to praise in the outcome.

Mark Hendley appears with stepdaughter Bobbie Smith, in an undated photo.
Mark Hendley appears with stepdaughter Bobbie Smith, in an undated photo.

“We are extremely disgusted with the state of Florida,” Mark Hendley’s stepdaughter, Amie Rose, told the Tampa Bay Times. “There was essentially zero defense in his name. She essentially got away with murder.”

Related: Family remembers slain man as serviceman and father

The shooting happened just after midnight on May 26, 2018, at the Hendley home on Anglecrest Drive in Riverview.

Court records portray an alcohol-fueled romp that began in the home’s swimming pool, then continued inside the house and ended with a single gunshot in the couple’s bedroom.

Both Mark Hendley and his wife had been drinking that night. Both were described in court records as being intoxicated. His blood alcohol content after he died was measured at .16, which is double the limit at which state law presumes a person is too impaired to drive.

A neighbor and friend of the couple, Lora Polatz, was visiting that night. Court records state that Mark Hendley first became aggressive toward her, dunking her in the swimming pool in what was variously described as “horse play” or an attack in which she nearly drowned. When Sabrina Hendley intervened, he pushed her into the pool, too.

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At one point, according to court records, Mark Hendley went into the house, retrieved a large “military style knife,” then returned to the pool area. He placed the knife close to his wife’s throat, court records state. She told him to stop.

Later, Sabrina Hendley ran through the house, out the front door and tried to hide behind a parked car.

Sabrina Hendley’s father, Michael Irwin, lived with the couple. As Polatz left the home, she told Irwin to call police, according to court records. Mark Hendley went into Irwin’s bedroom and knocked him to the floor. He also kicked and punched him, records state.

Irwin dialed 911 at 12:04 a.m. He told a call taker that he was not injured and that Mark Hendley was just “being an ass,” court records state. A prosecutor’s written response to the stand your ground claim, filed in court last year, notes that Irwin’s voice was calm and he did not say anyone was in danger.

In a sworn affidavit, Irwin said he heard Mark Hendley mention something about getting a gun from the bedroom.

Sabrina Hendley returned to the home. In the master bedroom, she and Mark Hendley argued. She wanted him to apologize to her father. As they spoke, she noticed a handgun lying on the bed. She picked it up. She pulled the trigger.

Mark Hendley had a wound through his upper back, near his arm, which came out his chest. The defense asserted the trajectory could have been inflicted as he stood in a “bladed” stance, as though ready to attack.

Sabrina Hendley told investigators she believed she had to shoot him to stop him from harming her. The state’s memo quotes several statements she made:

“He would have taken it (firearm) and shot me with it,” she said.

“He is gonna beat the s--t out of me if I don’t shoot this gun.”

“I would not have shot my husband if there was not a reason for it.”

Assistant State Attorney Aaron Hubbard argued last year there was no evidence Mark Hendley posed an imminent threat to his wife. He noted that she told detectives he was “just standing there” looking at her.

At a different point, though, she said he came toward her after she picked up the gun, according to the memo the state released Friday.

Hubbard wrote that prosecutors consulted their own experts about domestic violence, who agreed that Sabrina Hendley showed behavior typical of an abuse victim, demonstrating that she was “reasonably in fear” of her husband.

The memo notes defense evidence supporting claims that Mark Hendley had previously harmed his wife. They included an incident when he choked her to the point of unconsciousness. They also included an incident when he did a “leg sweep” that caused her to fall and injure her head.

Considering the expert opinions, and the state’s self-defense laws, “it is clear that the defense would most likely be successful in obtaining an acquittal at trial,” Hubbard wrote.

None of it made sense to Amie Rose, Mark Hendley’s stepdaughter. He had a prior marriage to her mother for 15 years.

“I also lived with him,” Amie Rose said. “Not once did I witness any kind of violence toward my mom.”

She said her family was shocked by the state’s decision.

“It’s almost as if they just got tired of waiting and said ‘let’s just be done with it,’” Amie Rose said.

Hubbard, the prosecutor, was recently selected by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become a judge in the Pinellas County. His appointment to the bench had no bearing on the decision to dismiss the case, a spokesperson for the State Attorney’s office said.

Foster, the defense attorney, noted Mark Hendley’s size relative to his wife. He was 6-feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. His wife was 5-feet-4 and weighed 130 pounds.

“What’s her defense against somebody like that?” Foster said.

After her arrest, Sabrina Hendley lost her job as rural mail carrier, her attorney said. In the years since, she has worked as an advocate for awareness of domestic abuse.