Spousal cases targeted

June 10, 1997

Spousal cases targeted

Program trains police to build case without victim's help


Staff Writer

Roland L. Garde was charged with battery against his wife in 1990, but the case was dropped when Suzanne Garde refused to testify.

A month ago, Suzanne Garde was fatally shot outside her home on Garis Shop Road near Funkstown, and her husband has been charged with first-degree murder.


Such cases can be chilling examples of what activists say can happen if domestic violence goes unchecked.

Washington County police agencies and prosecutors have joined a statewide initiative to crack down on domestic violence before it leads to tragedy.

At its heart is an effort to overcome one of the most vexing problems authorities face: How to build a case when the chief witness - the victim - refuses to cooperate.

The program, known as the Pro-Prosecution Initiative, trains police to investigate domestic violence cases as if the victim does not exist. If prosecutors have enough other evidence, such as pictures and medical testimony, they can make a case without the victim's help.

It is a strategy championed by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has pushed the initiative through the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. She reiterated her support in an April visit to Hagerstown.

"Police need to learn how to build cases without the help of the victim," she said. "Treat it like a murder case. You don't have the victim there."

The Pro-Prosecution Initiative began in 1994 with Cecil, Frederick and Talbot counties. Washington County signed on at the end of last year.

The initiative combines changes in the law with changes in policy.

Police officers are trained to use a standard evidence form that focuses attention on building enough evidence to be used at trial.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department received a three-hour training session earlier this year and Hagerstown City Police Chief Dale Jones said city officers will be trained this fall.

"It gives the police initiative to act, which is good," said Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades, who called the training "top-notch and first class."

Every prosecutor in the Washington County State's Attorney's Office sat through a session last week.

Formalizing a change

Jones said the program formalizes a change of direction that local police agencies have been moving toward for years.

Most homicides in the county and many other violent crimes result from domestic disputes, he said.

"You're talking about a cycle of violence," he said. "Unless you interrupt that cycle, it's going to continue and in some cases escalate."

In recent years, state law has required police officers to make arrests in more domestic violence cases. In the past, officers had a great deal of discretion about when and if to make arrests in domestic cases, and often did not make arrests, Jones said.

Advocates for victims of domestic abuse contend that domestic violence was not taken as seriously as other crimes.

"I think that's been the issue. Something that happened in a person's home was their business," said Vicki Sadehvandi, executive director of Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, known as CASA.

Jones said other factors came into play as well. Officers were less motivated to make arrests that rarely led to convictions, he said.

"It's always been a serious problem," said Hagerstown Officer Randy Rourke, a crime prevention officer. "But in the past, our hands were kind of tied. It was almost up to the victim to do something about it."

Tough to prosecute

Prosecutors say domestic abuse cases are among the toughest to prosecute because they are hard to prove. When a victim decides not to testify, getting a conviction can be nearly impossible.

That's why the program stresses evidence collection techniques. Jones said officers are taught to take photographs, preserve 911 tapes and record information about a crime scene.

At the same time, recent changes in the law have given prosecutors more tools. Among the most important, according to prosecutors, is a 1995 law limiting the number of times victims can invoke the spousal privilege not to testify against a spouse.

In the past, there was no limit; now a person can invoke it only once. After that, if they refuse to testify they risk being held in contempt of court.

Assistant State's Attorney Gina Cirincion, the office's domestic violence coordinator, said changes have allowed prosecutors to build cases that do not rely on the victim.

The idea is to catch abusers early and punish them severely in an attempt to head off future violence.

Experts say it is too early to tell if the program will have dramatic results, but Mades said he has heard encouraging anecdotal evidence from the counties that launched it in 1994.

"I surmise that if it's been adopted here, it's proved itself in other counties," he said. "If we save lives - just one - that speaks highly."

Mades said deputies responded to 720 domestic violence calls in 1996, an average of almost two a day.

Cirincion called on judges to hand down stiff sentences in domestic abuse cases. Since domestic abusers often do not have criminal records, the tendency is to give probation, she said.

But she said it is important to send strong messages.

"I've seen judges say, 'If she's not going to go forward, why should I take this case seriously?'" she said. "That misses the point."

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