Acceptance of domestic violence makes it a more painful phenomenon

February 26, 1996|By Mike Littwin

THE LATINA housekeeper speaks little English. So when she dials 911, she gives the phone to little Jeffrey.

Jeffrey is 7 and he's scared.

"My daddy's going to hit my mommy," Jeffrey tells the operator. "Please hurry."

The cops come, in a hurry, and arrest Daddy. Mommy says Daddy was choking her to the point that she nearly blacked out. There are bruises and scratches on her body. And Daddy, it turns out, has hit Mommy before.

What happens?

When the case is about to come to trial, Mommy begs the prosecutors not to proceed. She doesn't want to testify, she says. She asks to "leave me, my privacy and the sanctity of my marriage alone."

In the past, that would have been enough. No victim, no case.

In the past, Felicia Moon, wife to football star Warren Moon, could not have been made to testify against her husband. But now Texas has a law revoking what's called spousal privilege in domestic violence cases.

Under the new law, the spouse, if called to the stand, must testify. The theory behind the law is that domestic violence is not a private issue. Domestic violence is a plague on our land.

So Felicia Moon reluctantly testifies, and here's what she says, under oath: I started it. I threw a candlestick at him. I kneed him in the groin. It was my fault. He was just trying to calm me down.

And the jury, after deliberating less than 30 minutes, lets Moon go. Warren and Felicia Moon embrace. He kisses her on the top of her head.

And one juror, explaining her vote, says: "I feel like we all have problems in our marriages. I'm sure all of us have some violence in our marriage that just hasn't come out."

Which is sadly reminiscent of the O. J. juror, also a woman, who said the emphasis on domestic violence was "a waste of time."

The new law, now in effect in some form in 40 states, including Maryland, accomplished nothing -- except the humiliation of the apparent victim. And critics have rushed forward to call the law well-intended but badly flawed.

I called Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth, to get her view. Like many in her field, she is ambivalent.

"I think the issue is a double-edged sword," Alexander says. "Battered women are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

"If they do testify, [the batterer] likely will not be convicted. And if convicted, it's likely he won't go to jail."

She faxes me statistics from Baltimore in 1994. Of 4,767 domestic violence cases, only 11 percent resulted in conviction. Only 2 percent resulted in jail time.

"That gives statistical credence," Alexander says, "to what many battered women are feeling: Ain't nothing gonna happen no way."

She has ideas that go beyond compelling victims to testify. Cops on the scene who do a better job of investigating. Somebody to accompany victims to the emergency room. A structure in place that would convince the victim that the system can work.

And, she says, before anyone is forced to testify, resources must be put in place to protect the victim.

"Philosophically," Alexander says of compelling victims to testify, a great idea. But you can't put victims in a potentially more vulnerable position than they were when they walked into the courtroom."

She then suggests I call state's attorney Roni Young, who heads up the city's domestic violence unit. Maryland has a law compelling some victims to testify, but it's a weak law with many loopholes.

Young, who agrees with virtually everything Alexander has to say, still believes we should end spousal privilege completely. Because she's seen how the law can work.

"It's not a panacea," she says. "And the problem with eliminating spousal abuse is that it doesn't eliminate the power and control the defendant may have over the victim.

"But I've seen too many compellable witnesses who were relieved, totally thrilled, to learn that they don't control the case, that we're there for them, that this is a crime. Many of them look at it as a private family matter. When they realize it's not up to an individual to decide, many of them become wonderful witnesses."

The job of the prosecutor, she says, is to be sensitive to the needs of each victim, to ensure that forced testimony doesn't put the victim at greater risk.

"It's a mixed bag," Young says. "The best thing we can do is to educate and support. Many times our contacts with victims don't result in prosecution. But we leave the door open. And many come back, ready to proceed -- 'I lied to you. Sorry.' "

Young continues: "It's not just Warren Moon. And it's not just O. J. People ask me why society is in denial over this issue. They're not in denial. They're in acceptance -- accepting of the one slap, the one punch, not realizing what it can escalate into. That acceptance, that's the most frightening thing. And that's what we have to change."

And, she might well add, no piece of legislation is going to make that happen.

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