The detention officers opened the steel door to the jail courtroom. A young man in an orange jumpsuit shuffled in and was seated on the inmate bench. His ankles and wrists were shackled together.
The assistant district attorney read the charge out loud: first-degree murder. It was alleged that the 23-year-old stabbed a man to death. His court-appointed lawyer stood next to him and nodded that her client understood the charge.
Because of the murder allegation, I ordered him to be held without bail. He would remain in jail until his next court date in courtroom 5A, where all cases involving domestic violence are scheduled.
The victim named in the warrant was his father. On the other side of the glass partition, family members were devastated. One woman cried out, “How could this have happened?”
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“How could this have happened?” is what Courtroom 5A is all about.
When family or romantic relationships unravel into physical or mental abuse, the court system can become involved. Domestic violence crimes are indiscriminate as to race, class, gender or age. They are often rooted in anger, jealousy, resentment and control. It is a crime that defies logic.
Domestic violence has reached epidemic proportions. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 4 women and about 1 in 7 men in the U.S. have experienced severe physical assaults by a partner in their lifetime. In North Carolina, more than 40,000 domestic violence protective complaints are filed annually.
Four days every week, a specialized courtroom in Durham is devoted to these types of cases. Morning sessions of court involve criminal charges that are taken out by law enforcement. Afternoon sessions of court focus on civil domestic violence restraining orders, cases where a victim files a complaint against an alleged abuser and asks the court for an order of protection.
For a judge, domestic violence cases are often the most harrowing to hear. Families are torn apart. Children are traumatized, and often the prosecution of these cases is thwarted when victims refuse to testify due to intimidation and fear of retaliation. Even when victims are willing to testify, typically it’s one person’s word against another. Relationships are complex, and each case is different. Judges listen to stories of jealousy, anger, recrimination, hurt and struggles with substance abuse, all ending in violence which resolves nothing and compounds everything.
In this courtroom, the accuser and the accused tell their stories, and a judge must decide beyond a reasonable doubt if the crime occurred. Allegations can be anything from a slap across a face, a push or a shove, communicating a threat, to more violent events like, strangulation or murder. If the judge makes the wrong decision, consequences can be tragic.
Contemplating and coming to that decision can involve many considerations: Were children present? Were they harmed emotionally or physically? What’s worse is when responding officers cannot determine who the aggressor is, both parties can be arrested. If both parents are in jail, what happens to the children?
Judges with experience in these types of cases are also acutely aware that ulterior motives may be present. An accuser may hope to gain an advantage in a pending divorce case or a custody dispute, for example. False allegations can be made which can result in devastating consequences. Parsing out the truth from lies is difficult.
Often victim advocates or law enforcement advise a victim to go to the courthouse and file what is known as, “a 50B complaint.” It is a civil action where the victim fills out a formal complaint asking a judge to issue a temporary order to stop all contact with an alleged abuser. The complaint is taken out “ex-parte,” meaning by one party alone, and the defendant does not find out about it until he or she is served with the complaint by a deputy. After a defendant is served, a hearing is scheduled within 10 days for a judge to decide if the restraining order should be in effect for one year.
A judge may order an abuser to be evicted from the home and that all contact and communication cease. Guns may be confiscated, and an abuser can be ordered into a batterers intervention program. Although these are “civil” orders, a violation of the order is a crime, a Class A1 misdemeanor, the highest level of misdemeanor in North Carolina.
While our civil domestic violence laws protect persons of the opposite sex who are in or have been in a dating relationship, it does not protect those in same-sex dating relationships. Currently, the statute defines a “personal relationship” in terms that do not include same-sex dating relationships. Protections against violence should apply equally to everyone. It is a travesty and ignorance of modern day relationships that they do not.
Being a victim of domestic violence is frightening, lonely and traumatizing. It rips the fabric of a person’s sense of safety and daily life. Fortunately, there is assistance to help victims. Legal-aid attorneys often represent victims free of charge. In Durham, the Durham Crisis Response Center and crisis centers throughout the state offer help, counseling, shelter and guidance. No one should ever have to go it alone.
Every judge who has ever presided in a domestic violence courtroom has a lingering fear about what happens to victims in domestic violence cases. We wonder if they are safe. Our greatest fear is that when the law does not permit us to grant a protective order or render a verdict of guilty, that someone who needed protection will end up severely hurt or killed.
To be a judge and watch two people who once had an intimate relationship or a family bond dissolve into a courtroom proceeding is incredibly sad and troubling. It will take much more than court orders to stop this violence. Of all places, people should be safe in their homes and within their relationships.
Marcia Morey is chief district court judge in Durham. Reach her in c/o The Durham News at firstname.lastname@example.org