Legal weapons used to fight domestic abuse

September 04, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

In confident, sweeping handwriting, Tammie Garrett described in a police report how her boyfriend beat her up: "On 3-22-95, Terry Edwards and I (Tammie) had an argument, he began punching and scratching me in the face and body. . . . We went outside and he hit me with a rock."

Several months later, the case came to trial in Talbot County District Court, but by that time, the 19-year-old Easton woman claimed she had forgotten what happened.

Not too long ago, that turnabout would have caused prosecutors to drop the case. But now, using new legal weapons, Maryland prosecutors are expanding the war against domestic violence, and winning convictions even when victims refuse to testify.

In the Talbot case, for example, Assistant State's Attorney Henry Dove relied on an experimental police report developed by victims' advocates. He won the case -- Terry Monroe Edwards, 21, of Centreville got a 90-day suspended sentence for battery, two years' probation and was required to get counseling.

A state law that takes effect next month will allow judges to compel a victim's testimony more routinely. The legislation also will give victims more time to file a complaint. Meanwhile, new police reports allow officers to detail the abuse -- powerful evidence in court.

"You have to get that conviction, and what we have done is enhanced our ability to get that conviction," says Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Bailey, who heads the domestic violence unit created in 1993.

The problem of domestic violence is widespread. In one year, Baltimore and Baltimore County courts may see more than 5,000 cases of domestic violence. Carroll County courts may see more than 300, and twice as many may land in Anne Arundel and Howard County courts.

But as many as half the victims who file complaints try to back out on the witness stand, law enforcement officials estimate.

Often, the victims fear more abuse -- or think it won't happen again -- say domestic violence prosecutors and counselors. Others are emotionally or financially dependent on their batterers.

"They say: 'Take it out of my hands. Don't make it be up to me -- pursue this without me,' " says Jeanne MacLeod, community education coordinator of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

With the new law, that will happen. The Domestic Violence Act of 1995, which takes effect Oct. 1, further limits the ability of a battered spouse to evoke "marital privilege." The privilege, which allows a spouse to refuse to testify, can only be used once, according to the new law.

"The important part of this [legislation] is that often, if the onus [to testify] is on the woman, the abuser would lean on the woman and threaten the woman," said state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a 10th District Democrat who pushed for the law.

With the victim's testimony, a conviction is much more likely -- as it was in the case of Sharon Rivenbark, who married Billy Clayton Rivenbark in 1993.

She was beaten two weeks before marrying Rivenbark, who had just finished serving 13 years in prison for murder. At first she attributed his violence to his "readjustment to society," but by October, it was routine: He would blame her for whatever was wrong, make her question her own behavior, then grab her and slam her against walls or furniture.

"There was no one more romantic when the time was right, but there was no one more demonic, too," Ms. Rivenbark, 45, says, recalling the rose-petal bath he prepared for her on Valentine's Day.

As spring turned to summer, she was in constant pain and went to Franklin Square Hospital Center for surgery. But just 10 days after she stopped wearing a neck brace, "he grabbed me by my face" and smacked her, leaving a facial bruise that stayed for two weeks, she said.

Her son urged her to report the attack, recalls Ms. Rivenbark, who lives in Eastpoint and is a sales coordinator for a pest control company.

"I went through all the excuses, trying to make everyone else wrong and [Rivenbark] right," she says. "Intellectually, I knew this was a bad person, but emotionally . . . I still wanted to protect him."

Finally, she got the courage to press charges.

On Sept. 6, 1994, Rivenbark was charged with battery and assault with the intent to disable. In violation of parole on the murder charge, he was jailed immediately at the Baltimore Detention Center. From there, he called his wife three times a day and sent letters, urging her to invoke marital privilege.

One letter said: "Honey; you can stop my hurting heart. . . . The state may not just drop charges (?!) but they can not force you to testify! And if push comes to shove . . . my suggestion is do not go to court!! No you, no trial. . . go somewhere for lunch? Have car trouble . . . anything but show up."

After one of his calls, she had her phone number changed. "That day was the end of my wanting to help him anymore. That's when I decided I had to go to court, I had to face whatever came up."

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