Domestic assault cases challenge police, prosecutors~ RH May, 3, 2015
Staff Writer | May 03,2015
In the five minutes it takes to stop for a to-go coffee, 20 women are beaten by a domestic partner in America. Unlike movie romances, intimate partnerships are not always marked by dreamy picnics and professions of perpetual love. Sometimes, for myriad reasons, relationships evolve into escalating abuse, violent encounters and, in some cases, death. In 2010, across the nation 241 men and 1,095 women were killed by an intimate partner, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “My own take on domestic violence in Vermont is that we all have to be vigilant,” Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said. “It is often a multi-layered problem. There are often poverty issues, drug issues.”
In 2013, of Vermont’s 13 homicides, eight were related to domestic violence and four were committed by a current or former intimate partner, according to a 2014 report by the State of Vermont Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission. And while one in seven women are injured by an intimate partner, men are not immune: One in 25 males are physically abused by a partner, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reported in 2010. “That kind of violence can’t be tolerated,” said Avaloy Lanning, head of Rutland County Women’s Network & Shelter. Rose Kennedy, state’s attorney for Rutland County, added: “This is a pervasive problem. The general view I am getting (from community leaders): We have to do more.”
Deadly outcomes Vermont’s recent domestic violence fatalities include: — James Robarge, 45, of Bellows Falls, was sentenced in February to serve 30 years in prison for the beating death of his wife, Kelly Robarge, 42, just hours after she filed for a divorce to end their 24-year marriage. At his sentencing hearing, through his lawyer, Robarge told the court how much he missed her. — Christopher Sharrow, 37, of Pittsford, was charged with second-degree murder in the July 2013 death of his girlfriend, Kristen L. Parker, 32, who was trying to leave him. Vermont State Police found her on the kitchen floor; their children were home at the time. While incarcerated, Sharrow tried to hang himself in his St. Johnsbury jail cell, leaving him unable to remember anything from that night, court records said. He is awaiting a June psychiatric evaluation to determine his competency to stand trial on the charges. Cases like these, along with new domestic violence laws, have pushed police and prosecutors to address the seriousness of domestic assault crimes. “The goal of the justice system is to remediate situations so they won’t go to trial,” Valerio said.
St. Albans attorney Bill Christman said many domestic assault cases are initially overcharged. “Sometimes innocent people will plead guilty so they can go from a felony to a misdemeanor,” he said. “Very few actually go to trial.” Christman also said few defendants can afford a private attorney, with the cost of a defense ranging from $10,000 to $20,000. “It’s very expensive for people charged with these crimes and very few can afford the thousands and thousands of dollars it takes for the case to go to trial.” What if he’s innocent? With more arrests, more holds without bail, more cases going to trial and tougher sentences, law enforcement hopes to stem this violence. “We have had 40 domestic assaults since I took office three months ago,” Kennedy said last week. “I believe seven were held without bail.”
Nonetheless, in the process, questions arise as to how these cases are handled, what happens to the victims — and what if the alleged abuser is innocent? “Not everyone charged with domestic assault is guilty of domestic assault,” said Mary Kay Lanthier, supervising attorney of the Rutland County public defender’s office. “Simply because a citizen claims that a domestic assault has occurred does not mean that it did.” Historically, domestic violence calls to police were swept under the rug, Lanning said. “During those times it was considered a personal matter and police rarely got involved,” she said. But a backlash from feminists in the 1980s, along with a published report by Minneapolis researchers showing arrest as an effective deterrent to domestic violence, led to the passage of the federal 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Since then, several other federal and state laws have been passed to protect victims.
Under Vermont law, first-degree aggravated domestic assault convictions carry prison sentences as high as 15 years. Those found guilty of domestic assault cannot possess a firearm. But Valerio said that when these cases go to trial, the defense often wins. “For the vast number of cases, it is not in anyone’s interest to go to trial,” he said. “The defense wins two-thirds of the cases.” ‘Trust their gut’ Around the state, law enforcement takes domestic assault calls seriously and uses “lethality screenings” to determine a victim’s risk of being killed. “There are a series of 11 questions, and based on answers the officer will make a judgment if they are heading toward a lethal outcome,” said Jenn Firpo, legal coordinator and systems advocate for Rutland County Women’s Network & Shelter. “But I always tell police to also trust their gut,” she said. “Sometimes the victim may not answer truthfully, but the officer gets a gut feeling that makes the hairs on his neck stand up; something that makes him pretty sure he’ll be there with a body bag one day.” Firpo is embedded two days a week with Rutland City Police through Project VISION, but is available to all police in the region. “I mostly get calls about technical support,” she said. “They might say, ‘I’ve just been to a domestic and I’m writing up my report, this is what I heard, am I missing something?’” Nonetheless, domestic assault is an emotional crime because of the relationship. A woman’s life may be in jeopardy, but Lanning said fear often takes over. “She may fear police coming to her home and that she might not be believed. She is afraid of the consequences of having her partner arrested; if he goes to jail, who will pay the bills?” she said. “She is afraid about what will happen to her children and questions flood her mind. Where do I go for help? How will I pay for groceries? Where will we live? What if he gets out and what if he doesn’t get out?” Arrests keep abusers in jail, giving the alleged victims time to figure it all out. “They have time to connect with family and friends and make arrangements, to stop and take a deep breath,” Lanning said.
In Rutland County, Deputy State’s Attorney Ian Sullivan has been assigned to handle domestic assault cases. And Kennedy said she intends to prosecute. “When we believe the victim,” she said, “we will bring the cases to trial.” Kennedy’s office also has two advocates to assist victims as they wade through difficult choices. “Victims have rights and the victims need a voice,” said Naomi Roche, victims’ advocate. ‘He said, she said’ Several recent domestic assault jury trials in Vermont shed light on the issues involved in bringing domestic assaults to trial.
On April 24, a Rutland jury found Michael Guzman, 36, of Middletown Springs, innocent of first-degree aggravated domestic assault. The jury deliberated for 2½ hours and acquitted him. “Having a police officer and a prosecutor believe that a domestic assault occurred, does not mean that it did,” said Lanthier, Guzman’s defense attorney. “Twelve members of the community are given the task of considering the evidence and determining the facts of the case.”
Lanthier said no one disputes the seriousness of domestic assault, but “the issue becomes much more difficult and complicated when you look at individual facts in individual cases to try and ascertain what did and did not happen, and what the prosecution can and cannot prove.” Kennedy, the prosecutor in the Guzman case, said her office is researching innovative ways to approach these cases. “A lot comes down to ‘he said, she said.’ … We need to be more creative in our investigations,” the state’s attorney said. “When the police first arrive, the top priority is safety, but they can go back and thoroughly investigate. What did the neighbors hear?” Jurors in the Guzman case declined to comment on their decision, on instructions from Judge Thomas Zonay. Valerio said of domestic assault trials: “Ultimately it’s the state’s attorney and the defense counsel recognizing early on the benefit to resolving this family problem.” Last week, in addition to Guzman’s acquittal, Zachary A. Grant, 29, Rutland, who was found guilty in a jury trial of domestic assault, was sentenced to serve nine to 18 months. “I think overall, we have made huge strides,” Lanning said. “It is important to prosecute these cases.”