Domestic violence cases gaining priority among police, courts

$56,055 grant from state to fund investigative unit is third for Carroll

July 28, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County state's attorney's domestic violence unit may have prevented a homicide last week.

Members of the unit -- formed two years ago after three people were killed in domestic violence incidents in Hampstead -- happened to be nearby last week when a woman came to the courthouse seeking help.

The man hadn't struck her or their child, but he had stalked and harassed her and burglarized her home, "and there were indicators flying all around" of potentially serious violence, said Gary W. Cofflin, the unit's full-time investigator.

Unit members encouraged the woman to obtain an order from a District Court judge -- and urged her not to go to the man, no matter how despondent he seemed.

The police report is spare: a 22-year-old man found shot to death at home July 21 -- a suicide. Police said the man had laid out some personal effects, including the woman's picture, before shooting himself.

The day before, he had been arrested on charges of burglary -- for allegedly breaking into her home to get some rings -- harassment, trespassing, stalking and malicious destruction of property. He was released without bail.

"I do feel we saved the life of a person. It would have been a murder-suicide," Cofflin said a day later.

Lt. Terry Katz, commander of the state police barracks in Westminster, agreed that a homicide probably was averted. "That young woman is lucky. I do believe that, absolutely," Katz said.

State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, in his second term, has made domestic violence a priority.

While most of the Baltimore-Washington area state's attorneys have domestic violence units, Barnes said Carroll is the only one of the state's western-area counties with a separate unit. Carroll's unit has an investigator, a coordinator and a full-time prosecutor.

As a grant was awarded this month for the unit's third year, Barnes named a new prosecutor, Hope E. Hancock, and a new coordinator, Laurie A. Jones.

The $56,055 grant runs through June 2000, awarded by the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention, through the federal STOP Violence Against Women program. Barnes' office received $51,805 in the last fiscal year and $48,773 in the 1997-1998 year.

Although the state grant can be awarded for only three years, Barnes said the county commissioners have been supportive of his efforts.

The unit begins work as soon as a complaint is filed, Hancock said, by interviewing the victims with an eye toward criminal charges -- usually assault.

"These will not be dropped unless there are extenuating circum- stances," she said, noting that "usually there is intense pressure at home to drop the charges."

"It's about power, control, manipulation -- and it works, physically, mentally, financially," Cofflin said. After the assault, there often is a "honeymoon stage" of apologies and promises.

Barnes said domestic violence cases represent about 10 percent of his criminal caseload of about 4,000 a year. Far more domestic violence cases go to trial than other types of cases.

His office has a "no-drop policy," meaning cases are prosecuted even though they have only a 52 percent to 54 percent success rate.

Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Theresa M. Adams lost one last week involving a man charged with second-degree assault on his girlfriend, the mother of his child. Before trial, the woman began pressing to drop the case.

"This is just a common problem with domestic violence prosecutions," Adams said. Neighbors had called the police about a disturbance, and the victim said at the time that her boyfriend had pushed her down the steps. There were photographs -- and it was the fourth time she had filed charges against him.

But on the witness stand, Adams said, "she said she didn't remember what she told the police, because she was very drunk -- but she clearly remembers that she fell down the steps, and he did not push her."

Despite the difficulties, prosecutors and Katz agree that charges need to be filed in domestic violence, and cases need to be prosecuted.

"By the time she called the police, it was probably the seventh or eighth assault," Katz said. "And every time we go there, it gets more dangerous, for the woman and for the officers. You have to break the cycle of violence -- and you have to do it with an arrest." "We know if we don't do something to intervene, one of them is going to hurt the other -- and some of those who get hurt eventually die," he said.

Two state troopers at the Westminster barracks work full-time on domestic violence, said Katz, who recalled that in 1970 the troopers' approach was to tell everyone to calm down, then leave. Cofflin, who retired after 22 years as a state police sergeant, recalled a time when troopers threatened to arrest the victims if they "bothered" the police again.

That mind-set has changed, Katz said. "We treat domestic violence cases like a homicide -- and there's no leaving. If [troopers] don't arrest, they are required to report it to me."

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