Preventing More Harm
An Elusive Goal
Vertical prosecution in the larger courthouses means the same team of prosecutors and staff is assigned to the domestic docket
By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
Jan. 20, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
Three Fairfield County, CT tragedies in one week:
* The shooting death of a popular court clerk. Her husband is charged with her death, and a surviving child has to grope with horrific grief.
* A 77-year-old man apparently shot his 65-year-old wife multiple times and then turned the gun on himself. Their lifeless bodies were found in a car in a local commuter lot. The separate obituary for the wife was a tear provoking tribute by loving children for a wonderful mother.
* A man released on bond from his second domestic violence arrest against his wife -- who returned home -- murdered her and then turned the weapon on himself.
Domestic violence -- known in the courts as DV cases -- continues to challenge the criminal justice system. In the recent past the state created its system of what it calls "Vertical Prosecution." Prior to that DV offenders came and went through an endless revolving courthouse door. Little heed could be paid to whether these people were multiple offenders.
In a busy courthouse -- with more than 100 cases on an arraignment docket and an overtaxed and underfunded staff -- it was not always possible to research past incidents between the same couple that were the focus of an arrest for disorderly conduct, breach of the peace or a misdemeanor assault.
It wasn't until 1983 when Tracy Thurman obtained a $2 million civil verdict against the Torrington Police Department for failing to protect her from an abusive husband that the system woke up and realized more had to be done to recognize the potential for serious harm in the loving relationship now gone sour. The Thurman case demonstrated that the police had a policy of not arresting suspected abusive husbands and boyfriends. The cops failed to accord victims of apparent domestic violence the same protections as victims of unrelated assailants.
The system is much improved now. Vertical prosecution in the larger courthouses means the same team of prosecutors and staff is assigned to the domestic docket. Defendants appear each time before the same judge. Repeat offenders are quickly recognized and their conduct is monitored as the cases proceed. Prosecutors often attempt to divert first offenders to anger management and other intense therapy programs. Repeat offenders face substantial increase in penalties. This effort is aimed at ending the revolving door that had been the previous hallmark of the ongoing domestic dispute.
A defendant must appear before the very next session of the court following an arrest. In every other criminal arrest when a defendant is able to post bond that initial court appearance does not occur for one to two weeks. In DV cases a family relations officer interviews the parties and recommends either a partial or full protective order. The partial order prohibits further physical or sexual assaults or restraints but allows contact. The full order banishes the offender from the home and away from the victim. Once issued it requires the offender to surrender any weapons. Violations of the order are not tolerated and harshly punished. Victim Advocates are made available to the complainant to provide a voice and explain the process.
There was a protective order in effect for the third victim mentioned above. That order allows police to act immediately to seize the offender who appears to violate that order and it appears the West Haven Police were trying to find him. Unfortunately, that piece of paper can neither stop one hell bent on murder or the bullet he fired.
Bridgeport, CT attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan has been certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organization's Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on TruTv. His column also appears in the Sunday Norwich, CT Bulletin. Website, www.meehanlaw.com