Maryland domestic violence killings expose cracks in system

City sees spike of domestic-related homicides amid other high-profile area cases

March 22, 2013|By Alison Matas and Carrie Wells, The Baltimore Sun

Melissa Davis' husband had six domestic-violence arrests in less than a year of marriage, and was released by a judge on his own recognizance.

Katie Hadel's ex-boyfriend was let out of jail early on good behavior.

And Candace Hurt's husband had three women seek court protection against him but didn't follow through.

Davis, Hadel and Hurt all were killed this year in what police describe as domestic homicides by these men. Police, prosecutors or court officials had been in touch with each of them in the months, days, or, in Davis' case, hours before they died.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence say these and other cases expose cracks in a system that is supposed to protect the vulnerable — and raise the question of whether police and courts can effectively identify people who pose a deadly threat to their partners.

Five women have been killed in Baltimore so far this year in what police say were domestic homicides, compared with an average of six in each of the previous four years.

At a legislative oversight hearing this week, top police officials took questions about the killings. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the deaths are contributing to this year's uptick in murders. He pointed out that there had been no domestic murders at this point last year.

"I have been alarmed by the number of domestic issues," Batts said.

Particularly vexing for Davis' family is the fact that her husband, Daren Ruffin, was released by a court hours before her death. He had been charged with assaulting her but was not required to post bail.

On Tuesday, Ruffin pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder in the death of Davis. He was ordered held pending a trial in May.

Family members say there were many opportunities — in Maryland and elsewhere — for police and prosecutors to stop the violent cycle.

"There's a trail of people who are accountable," said Teneka Williams, a cousin of Davis.

Law enforcement officials say the cases show some of the inherent challenges in confronting domestic violence. It can be difficult for police, prosecutors or judges to determine whether a relationship is dangerous. Police in Baltimore handle several thousand domestic violence complaints every year. And the task is made more challenging when victims are unwilling or afraid to work with authorities.

Davis declined to testify against Ruffin in an earlier assault case, and he was acquitted. Hadel was under police observation at a family member's house but was killed after she returned to her own apartment without notifying officers.

Police, prosecutors and advocates say they've made progress in addressing domestic violence, and the number of domestic-related homicides had dropped significantly in both Baltimore and the state in previous years.

Yet despite their efforts, recent cases highlight the amount of work that remains.

Advocates are trying to fill the gaps in the judicial system with volunteer outreach coordinators, and by pushing for stronger laws. They say their efforts will never stop all domestic homicides, but they're hoping for a further reduction in violence.

"When there are these terrible tragedies, we keep trying to make the system as close to perfect as possible," said Tracy Brown, executive director of the Women's Law Center of Maryland.

Brenda Ballard, Davis' mother, remembers the way her daughter would dote on the man she married — getting up at 3:30 a.m., for example, to make him breakfast.

The devotion was not returned, Ballard said, as Ruffin was arrested on several assault charges, first in Massachusetts and later in Maryland.

The marriage ended in tragedy in January with Davis found dead of stab wounds in the couple's Baltimore apartment and Ruffin charged with first-degree murder. His lawyer, a public defender, was not present at Ruffin's arraignment Tuesday and did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Davis' family has criticized the Baltimore justice system for what members say was a failure to protect Davis from Ruffin, but court officials say the volume of cases they handle makes it difficult to determine which victims are most at risk.

The Baltimore court commissioner who released Ruffin without bail after his sixth assault arrest in late January is no longer on the job. The commissioner, Eric Gooden, did not respond to requests for comment. Officials would not discuss the circumstances of his departure.

Dorothy Lennig, director of the legal clinic at House of Ruth Maryland, said Davis' case calls for examining whether officials could have done anything differently.

"These are the hardest kinds of cases because, in retrospect, you can see the whole picture, and you can kind of see where things don't work," she said.

Protective orders

Katie Hadel's mother says Jeffrey Matthew Shiflett, the man now charged in her death, had threatened her daughter for years.

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