Saturday, May 22, 2010

Would You Try to Help a Battered Woman?

This is a fascinating hidden camera report by ABC News:

Part 1: Diners rush to aid bruised woman and stand up to abusive boyfriend.

Part 2: When bruised woman wears low-cut dress, will people intervene?

How many people stepped up and helped a woman in distress? Does the instinct for self-preservation win? Does race make a difference in how total strangers respond? How does her attire impact the assumptions and decisions we make about intervening?

I hope you take the time to watch both videos and consider how you might respond if faced with a similar situation. When we decide how to respond before being faced with a scenario like this, we're more likely to respond effectively.

Domestic violence should never engender a "none of my business" attitude in the community.

Friday, May 21, 2010

". . . An accident. . ."

As one who was born & raised in Virginia, and who has many friends who are alumni of UVA, I've followed this case since Ms. Love was brutally murdered two weeks before she was scheduled to graduate. The following was written by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune of the FaithTrust Institute on her blog. 

This case is also a grim reminder that dating/domestic violence doesn't care how wealthy or "privileged" you are. Laura

". . . An accident. . ."

This is how the defense attorney described his client's murder of his former girlfriend.

This story caught my attention last week. Sounding like the script for a made-for-TV movie, University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely broke into his ex-girlfriend’s bedroom, attacked her, slammed her head against the wall, took her computer containing his angry emails, and left her for dead. After his arrest, Huguely said he was "involved in an altercation" in which "he shook Love and her head repeatedly hit the wall." Hmmm . . .

Huguely’s defense attorney said, “We are confident that Ms. Love’s death was not intended but an accident with a tragic outcome.” Hmmm . . .

The moral issue here is one of agency, not intent; Huguely’s actions caused a woman’s death. Period. She was not alone in her room and tripped, falling against the wall, hitting her head and dying from the injury. That would be an accident.

Huguely probably did not break into her room with the intent to murder her. That is a point of law that will be important in charging and prosecuting him. But he did break into her room with the intent to control her, and he was willing to use physical violence to accomplish that. His confession should be, simply: “I killed her.” It’s time that abusers, if they choose to use violence, own it and the consequences of it.

This is dating violence to the extreme. Let’s make sure we see the whole of this unlikely picture. Two white upper-class seniors, both lacrosse players, are ready to graduate next month. They had dated for months, but she ended the relationship recently. He had issues and had been arrested in 2008 for drunkenness at which point he attacked the female police officer. All signs point to his pattern of abusive behavior. His girlfriend tried to get out; he wouldn’t allow it. She’s dead; he’ll go to prison.

This is the same story that is going on in our congregations, colleges and universities regardless of ethnicity, religious affiliation, or geography. Tragic, yes; accident, no. Teen dating violence is experienced by 25% of our youth. I call on campus programs and youth ministries to address these all-too-common experiences in the lives of our youth and hopefully prevent these tragic outcomes.

I think of Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead; fight like hell for the living.”

Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune
Faithtrust Institute

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tragedy averted - at least for now

Sometimes I'm torn between wanting to notify the community about a perpetrator by plastering his/her face all over the blog so that everyone knows what sort of people are in our midst, versus respecting the privacy of their victim(s), particularly when the victim is a child.

I'll opt for protecting the privacy of the victim - in this case a 3-year old boy I'll call Frankie, his mother and siblings.

Today I was in Judge John Adams' court to monitor a Motion to Modify Victim Contact in a case where the father is accused of Aggravated Child Abuse against Frankie. Dad was babysitting his four children, ages 8, 4, 3, and 2. The arrest affadavit contains the following information:
Mom contacted the chidrens' daycare one morning in April to ask the owner if she had observed bruises and lacerations on Frankie's lip and the left side of his face. The mother told the owner that her husband had caused the injuries the previous day and had threatened to kill her if she called police. She asked the daycare owner to help her. DCF was immediately called.

Eight year old Susan (not her real name) told DCF that her dad had been babysitting all the children the previous day while their mother was at work. Frankie had attempted to unlock the front door several times, causing their father to become upset. The defendant took a belt and began beating Frankie in a bedroom. His sister did not witness the beating, but heard the cries of her little brother and saw bruises on his face and blood coming from his mouth when he came out of the bedroom. The father later left the children home alone when he went to work.

When mom returned home, she asked Susan what had happened. Mom wept when she learned what had transpired, but had the presence of mind to take Frankie to a neighbor's house to look at his injuries ask their advice. Apparently, the neighbor told her to do nothing, because no calls were made to law enforcement, nor was medical attention sought that evening.

The officer who responded the following day documented the following injuries:
  • A 5" long bruise on the left side of Frankie's face,
  • A 4" laceration and bruise on the left side of his neck,
  • A small laceration on his lower lip, which was "extremely swollen and bruised with dried blood on his chin," and
  • A small abrasion on Frankie's chin
A criminal history check was conducted on the parents and a domestic violence report had been completed in January. In that incident, Susan reportedly witnessed her father repeatedly striking her mother with a stick (results of that investigation are unknown - there is no court case pending on it).

When detectives interviewed the father that evening, he told them that he had been attempting to take a nap and that Frankie tried to unlock the front door 3 times. During Frankie's third attempt, the father exited the shower, grabbed a belt and tried to strike his son on his lower legs. Frankie then ran into a door in the living room, causing him to fall. Dad claimed he then accidentally twice struck his son in the face with the belt. There were several other inconsistencies in the father's statement, and no evidence to support his story, so he was arrested.
As mentioned earlier, a Motion for Modification of Victim Contact was heard in court today. Since his arrest, the defendant has been residing with his brother in Orlando. When his attorney asked him why the judge should grant his request, the defendant said that he needs to go home - he needs his children and wife, that they need him, and that his wife wants him home.

The wife testified, although she seemed quite reluctant. Defense counsel asked her three times if she feared for her son's safety. She twice answered that she needed her husband home because she needs help with the children. Her body language and hesitancy screamed to me that she felt she had no other choice but to request he be allowed to come home. She finally answered "no" the third time the question was asked.

Judge Adams reminded the defendant that he was accused of beating this child until he was bloody.

Assistant State's Attorney Camelia Coward objected to the modification and reminded the Court that the defendant had threatened to kill his wife if she contacted the authorities. She also mentioned that the defendant had been responsible for caring for the children when this incident occurred.  Nothing else really needed to be said.

The judge denied the defendant's request. No trial date has been set.

Two things about this case strike me as tragic:
  1. The mother feels she needs her husband in the home - putting herself and her children at risk for future abuse. I don't know if she has family support in the area, but I do know that victims of domestic violence often feel trapped because of how difficult it is to provide for their needs and the needs of their children.
  2. The neighbor did nothing to help this woman when she asked for advice. Thankfully, she turned to someone (the children's daycare) who is mandated to report abuse when it is suspected.
I hope that anyone who reads this refrains from criticizing this mother for supporting her husband's request to come home. And I hope we all reach out and help our neighbor in whatever capacity possible if they come to us for assistance.

By the way, most child abuse cases are either dismissed or are pled out. Defendants typically receive a probationary sentence that includes counseling, following a DCF case plan, no hostile contact, and completion of an anger management class.

Nationally, nearly 5 children die each day due to child abuse and neglect.
Source: Childhelp website.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Three lives could have been spared

Nearly three weeks ago, Jose Antonio Maisonet-Maldonado stabbed Berlitz Alvelo, his girlfriend of five years, ran over her with their SUV and subsequently killed two more women by crashing into their vehicle after leading law enforcement officers on a high speed chase in Orlando.

The Orlando Sentinel reported:

Danielle Tavernier of the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office said Maisonet-Maldonado had been arrested on four domestic-violence charges since 2005, but prosecutors were forced to drop those cases because Alvelo was "not cooperative."

Officials accused Maisonet-Maldonado and Alvelo of throwing beer bottles at each other in an incident in November. Court records show they also bit each other. Maisonet-Maldonado also was arrested in 2007 as a result of a domestic-violence incident, but Alvelo refused to provide a sworn statement and the state dropped the charges.

The suspect's previous arrests on domestic-violence charges included two in 2005, according to the state attorney's office. Alvelo was the victim in both cases. She refused to cooperate with authorities in the first of the 2005 cases and recanted her story in the second arrest.
In an earlier article, the Sentinel reported that in 2009, "witnesses outside a Lil Champ convenience store off North Dean Road watched as Maisonet-Maldonado struck Alvelo on the head twice with the ball of a claw-type hammer after they had a fistfight in their car, according to Sheriff's Office records. She again declined to assist prosecutors."

Is it just me, or does it sound like Ms. Alvelo is somehow being blamed for not "assisting" the prosecutors? Apparently, none of the witnesses outside the Lil Champ convenience store were willing to "assist" prosecutors either.

I've monitored several cases where the State Attorney's Office will, when victims are unwilling / uncooperative / unavailable to participate in a prosecution, proceed IF there is enough other evidence available. This might include the victim's 911 call for help; photos of any injuries; evidence from the crime scene; and last, but not least, other witnesses. Juries will convict if the State is able to prove its case.

If law enforcement failed to document the crimes adequately, shame on them.

If witnesses failed to step up and provide testimony, shame on them.

If the State Attorney's Office had adequate evidence (photos, 911 call, other witnesses) and didn't proceed, shame on them.

Berlitz Alvelo, 35, Amanda Taylor, 28, and Francesca Jeffrey, 22, would probably be alive today if the community and the criminal justice system had done its job after the Lil Champ assault.

Finally, we need to remember that a victim often doesn't "assist" in prosecuting their batterer because it's usually not safe for them to do so. The community needs to hold these perpetrators accountable by being willing to "assist" whether or not the victim chooses to participate.

It is inappropriate and offensive for the media and the rest of us to point the finger at the victim and blame them for "declining to assist prosecutors."

Maisonet-Maldonado is currently being held on NO BOND in the Orange County jail. Let's amend this to say FOUR lives could have been spared.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Whatever Happened to . . . ? #16

Shawn E Hammonds
2008-CF-015541-A-O (Orange County)
Sexual Battery Vic<12 (2cts); Lewd/Lascivious Molestation vic <12 (4cts); Lewd/Lascivious exhibition by person >18
The State's plea offer of 15 years was rejected. The defendant reportedly passed a voice stress analysis test.
Hammonds was found guilty by a jury of all counts and sentenced to LIFE in the Department of Corrections and found to be a sex predator.

Caesar Pinto
2009-CF-015664-A-O (Orange County)
Sexual Battery
Defendant (age 19) allegedly fondled a woman at Typhoon Lagoon.
Defendant pled guilty and was sentenced to 7 years sex offender probation, 200 hours of community service and ordered to have no contact with the victim.

Christopher James Henson
2009-CF-011441-A-O (Orange County)
Lewd/Lascivious Battery; Impregnating a Child<16 yrs old
Defendant failed to return to his trial on April 14th after the lunch recess.
A capias for Henson's arrest was issued.

Paul & Virginia Crowley
2009-CF-005532 -A & -B (Seminole County)
Sexual Battery on Child by Person Familial/Custodial (2cts); L/L Molestation Vic<12 (2cts); L/L Exhibition; Use Child in Sexual Performance
These married co-defendants allegedly assaulted a preteen girl and made a video of it
Both pled no contest and were adjudicated guilty. They each received a sentence of 25 years in the Department of Corrections + 5 years sex offender probation. Both were designated as sexual predators.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A tale (or tail) of two animal abuse cases

Donald Raymond Lonergan
Cruelty to Animals
Defendant pled last week to shooting a neighbor's cat in the head with a BB gun.
He was sentenced to 3 days jail with credit for 3 days time served, ordered to complete 2 years probation, Impulse Control and Anger Management classes, have no harmful contact with animals, complete 50 hours of community service, and possess no weapons.
This was a felony case before Judge F. Rand Wallis.
The prosecutor assigned to this case was Katherine Drummond.

Travis Louis George Shaw
Confinement of Animals w/o Food/Water
Cruelty to Animals
Ocoee PD served a warrant on 9/16/09 and found Shye (pictured below with her new owner, Animal Services Officer Laura Tuttle) and two other dogs in a dark, blazing hot garage covered in feces and urine with no ventilation, no food and no water. The dogs were starving and were eating the gym equipment in the garage to try to survive. There were claw and teeth marks on the doors from the dogs trying to escape their conditions. The animals were covered in sores and fleas, emaciated, dehydrated and Shye had cigarette burns on her.

The other two dogs, Lexie and Ice, declined in health and had to be euthanized. Shye was adopted by Animal Services' investigating officer, Laura Tuttle.

Shaw was convicted of both misdemeanor counts today and sentenced to 6 months jail on each charge - to be served consecutively - by Judge Nancy L. Clark.

This is another case where we see the link between animal cruelty cases and other abuse.

Shaw is currently awaiting trial (scheduled for June 14, 2010) on charges from 9/11/09 of Attempted 1st Degree Murder w/Firearm, Aggravated Child Abuse, Aggravated Battery, Possession of Firearm by Convicted Felon, Throw Deadly Missile at or Within Building, Aggravated Assault w/Firearm and False Info to Law Enforcement Officer re: Missing Person or Felony.

Kudos to Orange County Animal Services, Assistant State's Attorney Rafael Rodriguez, and Judge Nancy L. Clark.

Trooper Gilbert's sentencing "post-mortem"

After FHP Trooper James Gilbert's sentencing on April 22, 2010 before Judge Marc Lubet, CourtWatch spent considerable time going through our records and developing a comparison of similar cases for analysis.

Having monitored hundreds, if not thousands, of pleas & sentencing hearings, we were surprised at the severity of the sentence for this defendant who never physically touched his victim, even though he scored over 10 years in prison.

When evaluating cases, there are numerous factors that must be taken into consideration. They typically include severity of the offense, its impact upon the victim, whether or not the victim is cooperative with the prosecution (if the State can't make its case without victim testimony, and the victim refuses to testify, the charge is often reduced or dropped), the availability of other evidence, the defendant's age, history of substance abuse, mental issues and previous crimes committed.
Each case is unique in its circumstances, thus making comparisons an exercise in trying to equate apples to oranges.

In this particular case, Gilbert pled to the bench, which means there was no prior agreement with the State Attorney as to what the sentence would be. The initial offer of no jail time + 18 months sex offender probation was rejected by the defendant in the early stages of this case. As it progressed through several defense motions, the prosecution's offer got tougher and was ultimately withdrawn.

It appeared as though both sides dug in their heels and could find no common ground for an agreement.

Of the 45 cases we examined, only 4 went to a jury trial. Two were pleas to the Bench (including Gilbert's) and the rest were agreed upon sentences between the State and defendant. It's important to realize that only when there's a plea to the bench or a trial, does the judge determine a sentence. When there is an agreed upon resolution, it's because the State Attorney and Counsel for the defendant have negotiated one.

It's always difficult to be a Monday morning quarterback when watching what transpires in the courtroom. We are not privvy to much of the information that the Court, State and Defense have. I do know that this defendant's behavior caused the 17-year old victim and her family to become estranged from one another. CourtWatch cannot begin to put a "price" on what the victim in this case has endured. It's impossible to undo the damage to her and her family.

Click here for the background info.

In addition to his sentence of 18 months in prison + 8 years sex offender probation, the Mr. Gilbert was terminated from his 17-year career with the Florida Highway Patrol as a result of his crime.

CourtWatch collected sentencing data about cases in which defendants were charged with the same crime as Gilbert was (most of which had fewer than 10 counts) and compared it to cases where the defendants were charged with Sexual Activity With a 16-17 Year Old. The sentences were converted from months or years into days so that we could more easily compare them. They range from no jail time to 15 years in the Department of Corrections.

We find it interesting that nearly half (12 out of 23) defendants who had actual physical contact with their victims were sentenced to less prison/jail time than Gilbert was. Eleven of those defendants got away without being required to register as a sex offender.

Only one defendant who pled to similar charges as Gilbert got more incarceration time than he did.

This sheet shows cases sorted by amount of time incarcerated.

This sheet shows cases sorted by total time supervised (incarceration + community control + probation).

Finally, in the majority of all types of criminal cases, first time offenders have adjudication withheld when they are sentenced. Essentially, this means that if they successfully complete all the conditions of their probation, they are not considered to be a convicted felon.

Why did this not happen for Mr. Gilbert? While we're at it, we ask the same question about Casey Anthony when she pled to the theft, forgery and uttering charges (2008-CF-013331-A-O) in January and was adjudicated guilty (although she certainly has more serious charges to deal with).

CourtWatch prefers to not open the "Casey" can of worms - there are plenty of other bloggers out there talking about her.

Was Gilbert's sentence too harsh? Or too lenient? We'd love to hear from you.