Spouse beaters targeted

January 22, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Citing domestic violence as a leading cause of crime, Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor is creating a family violence unit to take batterers to court.

Headed by veteran prosecutors Stephen Bailey and Sandy Williams, the unit will work with the police to compile evidence and screen serious incidents that can be prosecuted as felonies -- such as attempted murder -- even when the battered spouse declines to cooperate.

Ms. O'Connor discussed the new unit yesterday at a family violence conference that filled the county's jury assembly room with prosecutors and judgers.

She said her office also is pushing for state legislation that would modify Maryland's spousal immunity law, which makes it difficult for a wife to testify against her husband.

Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of Maryland's Court of Appeals said afterward that the panel "gave us more insight into the dynamics of domestic violence and violence within the family than we had ever received."

"Domestic violence can be a hard sell for the ones who haven't seen it," he added. He said he plans mandatory programs on the subject for the state's 242 judges in October.

Sandra M. Buel, a former domestic-violence prosecutor who escaped a violent marriage 17 years ago and is now a fellow at Radcliffe College, said violent crime results when "children who live with this learn that it's OK to use violence to get what they want."

She found little help when she left with her infant son and two foster children, she said, and there are still three times as many animal shelters as homes for battered women and their children.

Sgt. Mark A. Wynn, of the Nashville, Tenn., police department, now trains other officers to deal with domestic violence. He has ++ the experience: he once tried to kill his abusive stepfather by spiking his wine with roach killer.

"But for the grace of God and a strong mother, I could be speaking to you today as a convict," he told the assembly.

About 63 percent of juveniles in prison for homicide killed an abusive parent, he said, while Ms. Buel cited studies in Massachusetts, Oklahoma and New York showing that more that than 90 percent of women in prison were battered wives.

And they said family violence is a public health problem as well as a cause of crime: Four battered women die in America every day; domestic violence is the leading cause of women's visits to emergency rooms; and battering of pregnant women now causes more birth defects than all diseases combined.

"Women are in nine times more danger in our own homes than in the street," Ms. Buel said, but the criminal justice system responds with "denial and minimization."

She said the system downplays the danger and blames the victim by asking, "Why did you stay?" or telling her, "You don't look like a battered wife."

"Who are we protecting? The perpetrator," she said. "They don't merit a second, third, fourth chance -- yet we offer it. . . . Why do we as a society tolerate such extremely high levels of violence?"

Leaving home is the most dangerous event for women, resulting in about 75 percent of deaths, Ms. Buel said, which makes it essential that a safety plan be in effect anywhere an abuser might stalk her.

Abusers can control themselves with their bosses and others who may provoke them, they said, and need the impact of arrest, trial and possible imprisonment to learn that they must use the same control with their wives and children.

In Seattle, Ms. Buel said, a mandatory arrest policy shocked upper middle-class batterers who found themselves in court.

Still, Sergeant Wynn said, "Domestic violence is the most committed and the least reported crime." The detective, who is also a member of his department's SWAT team, said 70 percent to 80 percent of the team's hostage calls were for domestic violence or, as he put it, "domestic terrorism."

Police officers answering domestic calls are usually happy to leave a house when they're told "everything's OK," he said, and they often don't even file a report.

"But I've been inside the house," he said. "I know what's happening on the other side of that door."

"We stood at death's door every day," he added, recounting a episode with an abusive stepfather that occurred when he was 7 and his brother was 10. "There was absolutely nobody for us, and we decided to kill this man."

Trying to have police mediate is nothing but "government-assisted homicide," he said. "We're arresters, not psychiatrists."

"I have seen so many mistakes by police officers and prosecutors that cost people their lives. . . . A good arrest doesn't mean a conviction. A good arrest stops violence. "There is no greater honor than to save someone's life."

In San Diego, Ms. Buel said, the police have "a revolutionary sheet of paper," an interview form that helps them to collect evidence and photographs. As a result, he said, prosecutors win 90 percent of their cases and there has been a 62 percent decline in domestic homicides.

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