Domestic Violence in the Courts

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Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a three-part series examining domestic abuse in Raleigh and Wake County. About 31 percent of Raleigh’s 16 homicides this year were related to domestic abuse, five in total. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women has been a victim of severe physical violence by a partner. It is likely that every resident in Raleigh knows a victim of domestic violence, whether they know it or not. Learn more in part one of this series.

To protect the privacy and the safety of our sources who were victims of domestic violence, we are only using first names and identifying information is intentionally vague.

Maria sits up straight in her chair. She just came from work and her attire is classic and professional. If you met her on the street, you would never think that she spent three years being beaten by her husband.

Domestic abuse doesn’t know stereotypes.

Maria’s abuse began about 25 years ago.

“The memories always feel like yesterday,” she said.

A Manhattan native, Maria met her husband while out with friends. She was caught up in a whirlwind of romance. She was overwhelmed by his charm. Today, she warns young women to be aware of that feeling of love at first sight.

Maria said that young women, particularly college women, confuse power and control with real love. She did.

The couple dated for about a year before getting married. Maria said there were signs during their courtship, but he didn’t become abusive until after they were married.

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The InterAct shelter for abused women is at an undisclosed location, but photos showing the inside the shelter are displayed at the InterAct offices.

She recalled a time during her pregnancy when she was extremely ill. Forced to stay home by her husband, Maria snuck out of the house to see her doctor, who immediately admitted her to the hospital.

Her husband soon found her.

“He beat me right there in the hospital,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. “I was five and a half months pregnant.”

Security took him away, but she didn’t press charges.

“You’re pregnant, unemployed. You’re scared,” she said.

In the Courtroom
During her time assigned to the domestic violence court, Wake County Assistant District Attorney Amily McCool said it wasn’t abnormal for her to handle 150 to 200 cases in one week. With only one legal assistant and two assistant district attorneys, “we’re doing what we can,” she said.

When there is a criminal element involved in abuse, the district attorney’s office will talk with the victim about what she would like to see happen with the case. Sometimes, as in Maria’s case, the victim doesn’t want to press charges.

Most of the time though, McCool said, the case will go forward anyway because the community needs to hold the offender accountable. During a criminal case, she said, it’s not the victim against the abuser, but the state against the abuser.

Depending on the nature of the case, the abuser could enter into a deferred prosecution program, which could put the case hearing off for up to one year. But, they must not have any new charges within the year.

The abuser is then required to complete the community programs related to his case, such as a a certified abuser treatment program, which lasts about six months. Other requirements could include SAFE child or substance abuse programs, depending on the nature of the case.

For some, the programs don’t work, and the person returns to the system.

“There are some habitual offenders who have been there, done that, didn’t work and we have to move on to incarceration,” McCool said.

Shocking Sentences
Most domestic violence cases are misdemeanors.

“It usually shocks people what is considered a misdemeanor,” McCool said. “It takes a lot to get a felony assault.”

The most common charges, all misdemeanors, are simple assault, assault on a female, assault inflicting serious injury and assault with a deadly weapon.

The maximum time you’ll see behind bars for a misdemeanor is five months and that’s with five prior convictions. Abusers might see 60 days in jail if they don’t have any prior convictions.

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Wake County Assistant District Attorney Amily McCool.

“I think most people are pretty upset when they hear how weak our laws are,” she said.

To put it into perspective, McCool offered some examples.

“If you run somebody over with your car, but they don’t have serious injury, they just have bumps and bruises all over their body, that’s a misdemeanor,” she said.

It’s when you combine charges that someone is charged with a felony.

“If I beat you with a bat and it breaks your bones, then it could be a felony,” she said.

In this scenario, the bat is a deadly weapon and the broken bones are serious injury. Repeated offenses can also increase charges to a felony.

Orders of Protection
Domestic Violence Orders of Protection are commonly associated with criminal cases, but these orders are considered civil actions between the person applying and the defendant.

An abuse victim can seek an ex parte order of protection without pressing criminal charges.

Ex parte orders are emergency orders that can last up to 10 days. Ex parte orders can require an abuser to stay away from the victim’s home, her job, the homes of family members or friends or her children’s school. It could grant temporary custody of a child or pet and temporary possession of a shared home.

A hearing is scheduled within the 10-day period so that the defendant, or the person against whom the order was filed, has an opportunity to state his or her case. The judge could then award a longer order of protection lasting up to a year.

According to Wake County records, more than 2,200 domestic violence protective orders were issued from July 2009 to June 2010.

Anyone can apply for an order of protection.

Those seeking an order of protection can only apply for one at the county courthouse Monday through Friday, between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. The scheduling allows return hearings for ex parte orders to occur in the morning.

But if a woman comes in at 9 a.m. she will have to wait until the afternoon to have her case heard.

“Fifteen hours of out an entire week is the only time they can come down for an emergency protective order,” McCool said.

The process is different when abuse is a misdemeanor crime. If a police officer charges a defendant with a misdemeanor domestic violence crime, the court date is set around the officer’s court schedule. Typically, officers come to court once a month. McCool said the victim is required to come even if the case isn’t handled that day.

Desired Changes
While Wake County is lucky enough to have a domestic violence courtroom, it could be structured more efficiently.

Using grant funding, McCool said her office was able to perform an audit of the system to find out what can be changed. While the report made great recommendations, there are too many moving parts for changes to be made easily.

Joint courtrooms for civil and criminal cases could help. Orders of protection are civil actions and are held in one court, while criminal actions are held in another, resulting in separate court dates. A joint courtroom would allow for both hearings to be held on the same day.

Maria’s Escape
Things cooled down a bit after the incident in the hospital, but picked up again after their son was born. Her son’s cries often triggered abuse. Her husband never beat her son, but after he was put to bed, he would hit her.

Maria recalled being hit once because her husband’s steak was on the wrong side of the plate.

“I never knew what would prompt the beatings,” Maria said.

On top of the physical abuse, her husband isolated her from her friends and family. When she tried getting a job, he would hit her so badly that she couldn’t come in the next day.

During the time she did work, “He would show up on payday and take my paycheck,” she said.

After three years of abuse, Maria made an elaborate getaway with the help of some family members.

She squirreled away the money that she made while babysitting and packed bags for herself and her son. She bought a wig and a coat.

On the day she left, she cut all of the phone lines in her house and traveled from Manhattan to Newark Airport in New Jersey. With $120 in her pocket, a small child and no job, she traveled to Michigan, where she stayed with family until she could get on her feet.

He found her by phone and promised he would kill her, but she didn’t return. She never saw him again.

Instead, she started her life over and reinvented in herself. Today, she is remarried, living in the Triangle and works for a bank as an insurance broker.

Years after enduring her own abuse, Maria helped a friend apply for an ex parte order of protection, a process she described as a “nightmare.”

Despite help from legal aids and support advocates, Maria said she could understand why a traumatized woman would avoid going to court.

“You almost feel like the criminal yourself,“ she said. “We need to make that a little bit simpler.”

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