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Judges face crowded courts, reluctant witnesses

March 07, 2000|By ANDREA ROWLAND

The way Washington County's judicial system handles domestic violence cases sends a message to the community about how seriously the court views the problem.

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Some say that message hasn't been altogether positive.

"I'm not happy with what's happening in District Court, but I see it changing slowly," said Trooper Daniel Hoffman, regional family violence coordinator for the Maryland State Police in Frederick, Md.

Dockets are overburdened. Victims often recant testimony. Every case is different, and judges must weigh varying social and economic factors when sentencing, Hoffman said.

District Court handles most civil and criminal cases involving domestic violence. Felony offenses, such as domestic assaults involving weapons, are tried in Circuit Court.

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Circuit and District court judges said they recognize domestic abuse as a serious crime, and use the law and their discretion as guidelines for making decisions in the best interests of those affected by domestic violence.

"In the old days, there was a pervasive attitude that domestic violence was a family matter, a lesser offense," said Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright.

In the last five years, judges have become more educated, and court clerks more sensitive, to the problem, Wright said.

"The court now attempts to grant relief and protect and do what it's supposed to do," he said.

Some sources, including victims, advocates, abuse counselors, lawyers and law enforcement officers, said local judges do not hand out tough enough sentences for domestic violence crimes, enforce the law to its full extent, or show sensitivity or consistency when deciding whether to issue protective orders to victims.

"The judge gave me no reason for denying my ex parte. I felt like I was being judged for my last name," said Tammy, a domestic violence victim who asked that her full name not be used.

Tammy filed for a second ex-parte, and appeared before the same judge again in late November after her abuser assaulted two of their children during a visit, said a legal advocate for CASA, the women's shelter in Hagerstown.

Both children said they were afraid of their father in the ex-parte paperwork, the advocate said.

The oldest child, who was slapped in the face so hard that she fell to the floor and was left with marks, was not allowed to testify, the advocate said.

The judge again denied the ex-parte, saying he felt the father used appropriate discipline on the 12-year-old, the advocate said.

No clear-cut solutions

Most sources interviewed for this story refused to criticize the court on the record, saying they feared retribution.

They also said they were hesitant to judge judges because of the difficulties involved in trying domestic abuse cases.

District Court Judge Noel Spence said such fears were unfounded.

"I can't imagine any judge in this community retaliating to a criticism," he said.

The courtroom is an "open arena," said District Court Judge Ralph France, who said judges have always treated domestic violence as a serious problem.

Like Wright, Spence said the bench has taken domestic abuse more seriously in the last five years.

But the social, emotional and economic factors involved in such cases, in which the nature of the violence and history of abuse often vary widely, sometimes make it difficult to arrive at appropriate sentencing, Spence said.

"This is not a clear-cut situation at all," France said. "The law favors reconciliations and we favor intact marriages."

"You have to give weight to the evidence as you see it, use discretion to make a determination as to the severity of the domestic violence, and be fair to both sides," Wright said.

Tracking cases

There is no specific criminal charge called domestic violence.

Instead, abusers are charged with second-degree assault, reckless endangerment or trespassing, France said.

The maximum penalty for a second-degree assault is 10 years in jail.

Spence said he has never given a 10-year jail sentence for second-degree assault in a domestic violence case.

Harsher sentences are given in cases of serious, intentional injury as opposed to incidents in which the defendant "flies off the handle temporarily," Spence said.

It is impossible to track sentencing trends in domestic assault crimes because the cases are not earmarked as "domestic" in the courts' computer systems, according to court clerks.

The cases are lumped in with other second-degree assault cases, according to Baltimore District Court Chief Judge Martha F. Rasin.

In the mid-1990s, the courts were asked to voluntarily identify domestic violence cases by checking a box on the paperwork, she said.

Police were supposed to check the box when charges were filed in the commissioner's office, Rasin said.

Judges or clerks were then supposed to double check the box when the case got to the bench, but judges are often too busy to do that, she said.

It is not being done in Washington County.

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