Even Stalking Law Won't Be Enough

COMMENT

March 21, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

She is the classic example of a stalking victim, the perfect anecdote to support the anti-stalking legislation now before the Maryland General Assembly and the Anne Arundel County Council.

In the last three years, Cathy Rone's ex-boyfriend has done everything but kill her. He's beaten her, burned her with cigarettes, abused her children, tried to run her over with a truck, hung a freshly gutted cat on her car antenna, killed her daughter's dog and presented its remains to the pet store for a $250 refund.

He has plagued her with thousands of phone calls -- all charged to her via a calling card he finagled out of AT&T.

The tapes on her answering machine are filled with spiteful, obscene threats. "Hey, Cathy, I've got your number," he says in a raspy whisper. "I want to kill you. I want to rape you."

Last month, William Edward Kennedy III, now of Harrington, Del., hoodwinked Delaware police into arresting Ms. Rone on attempted murder charges. She was arrested at work, marched out in handcuffs and jailed for five hours before she could prove she was at work the day she was alleged to have tried to shoot his new girlfriend.

Is it any wonder she wakes up screaming in the middle of the night? She spends her every waking moment expecting to die.

Sadly, these new stalking bills aren't going to do much to change that.

Not because there's anything wrong with the legislation. It's long overdue. But Ms. Rone's problems progressed beyond stalking a long time ago. She doesn't need a stalking law so she can have her ex-boyfriend arrested. He has already been arrested and found guilty in Anne Arundel Circuit Court for assault and battery and telephone harassment.

Unfortunately, his conviction does not ensure her safety -- a fact it is important to remember amid all the publicity and debate about stalking bills.

While a stalking law certainly would deter some stalkers before they moved from threats to physical harm, it would not guarantee victims of more persistent offenders any permanent protection. Consider that Ms. Rone has already been harmed, and Kennedy has already been convicted. Yet the courts did not lock him up until two weeks ago, and then only for three years.

Kennedy pleaded guilty in November to dragging Ms. Rone from her car and burning her with a cigarette on Sept. 12, 1991. Judge Raymond Thieme levied a three-year suspended jail sentence, imposed five years of probation and ordered him to stay away from her.

That's a fairly typical punishment in a domestic case such as this, where the offender is charged for the first time and the victim is not seriously hurt. A jail sentence -- which would be short -- is often counterproductive, prosecutor Michael Bergeson says. "He gets out, and he's more angry."

Probation and a restraining order, with the threat of a jail term in case of violation, is considered a better way of keeping offenders away from their victims.

Mr. Bergeson says he thought it would work in this case.

It did not.

On March 10, Kennedy was back before Judge Thieme, charged with violating probation by making harassing phone calls and falsely accusing Ms. Rone of trying to kill his new girlfriend. Judge Thieme ordered him to serve the full three-year term.

So now he's in jail. How much peace of mind does that amount to?

"Not much," Ms. Rone says. Unless he's locked up for good -- which won't happen unless he kills or rapes her, and perhaps not even then -- she'll always have to watch her back.

Her best bet is to charge him each time he hurts her. The more she charges him, the greater the odds that, sooner or later, he'll be sent to jail for a long time.

"That's the way it is," says Mr. Bergeson, the prosecutor.

It's not the way it should be.

Why shouldn't people who show a clear pattern of harassment and abuse be hit with stiff punishments right away?

Why should victims of persistent domestic violence have to wait until they are nearly killed before their assailants are hit with a serious jail term?

Ms. Rone's story is about stalking. But, more than that, it's about the flaws in a judicial system that tends to treats domestic crimes lightly until it is too late.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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