Ned Barnett

Death by an intimate enemy

Tracy Williams
Tracy Williams

The North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence compiles a running list of people who have been killed in domestic violence cases in North Carolina. This year, Tracy Williams was No. 24.

On July 26, the 44-year-old health worker from Franklin County was fatally shot by her ex-boyfriend in a supermarket parking lot in Franklinton. In recent years, more than 60 people have been killed annually in North Carolina by someone they had, or once had, a close relationship with.

Williams did virtually all a person could do to protect herself. She took out protective orders in three counties to keep away from her the man charged with killing her, Garry Arist Yarborough of Zebulon. She told her family of her fears. She told the police when Yarborough threatened her. She changed her vehicle.

Yarborough, 35, has a long criminal record and spent years in prison for manslaughter. He was on federal probation when he was charged with kidnapping Williams in early July. He should have been easy to lock away. But in recent arrests, he was granted bond and released. It’s unclear why his probation was not revoked.

Williams bought a gun and obtained a concealed carry permit. She used the weapon when Yarborough approached her while she was at an ATM in the parking lot. She shot him in the leg and then the gun jammed. Yarborough, also armed, chased her down and shot her in the face, police said.

To learn of Williams’ ordeal and her fate is to shiver at the fear she felt, the growing menace, the inescapable threat and the inevitable end. Her pleas for help were heard by many, but no one – not family, friends, cops or judges – could save her. She died in a busy public place, yet terribly alone.

The killing has spurred a response. A vigil for victims of domestic violence was held at the Wake County Courthouse last Thursday. Williams’ mother and two grown children attended.

And in Franklin County, Safe Space, an organization that assists domestic violence victims, is hearing from groups that want to learn about preventing domestic violence.

“Our phones have been ringing nonstop from churches and other groups asking for presentations,” says Executive Director Monica Kearney. “We have momentum now in this community to get into places we haven’t been able to get to before. My calendar for August is full in just a week’s time. People have been calling to volunteer more.”

Kearney says, “(Williams’) family has been saying something good will come out of this and her death won’t be in vain. As an agency, we want to support the idea that her death won’t be in vain and neither will the other 12 people we’ve lost in the last 10 years.”

One enhanced protection did not come in time to help Williams. A pending change in state law will extend to current and former boyfriends and girlfriends a requirement that people charged with domestic violence be held up to 48 hours without bond so a judge can review their case. When Yarborough was arrested in Johnston County on the July kidnapping charge, a magistrate reviewed his case but likely did not have access to his federal record. The magistrate set a $75,000 bond and Yarborough posted it. The change that would have subjected him to a hold for a more complete review – and likely a much higher bond – does not take effect until Dec. 1.

Amily McCool, a lawyer with the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the new law is part of a gradual increase in the toughness of laws covering domestic violence in North Carolina.

Still, the laws are relatively weak. “Most domestic violence crimes are still prosecuted as misdemeanors,” McCool says. “You can punch someone in the face and break their nose and be charged with assault as a misdemeanor.”

Yet the larger problem isn’t the lack of laws. It’s the failure of the community and its institutions to appreciate the seriousness of domestic violence. It’s a perspective often reflected in the media, McCool says, where killings are labeled “domestic disputes” as if they were akin to a kitchen-table argument over bills.

It’s not about disputes. It’s about danger, at times fatal danger. Domestic violence crisis lines across the state collectively receive more than 100,000 calls a year in North Carolina, and that number reflects only a fraction of the people living and running in fear.

“There are thousands and thousands more,” McCool says. “Only a small percentage are ready at any point to seek services.”

The lack of seriousness is also reflected in a lack of funding. Indeed, state budget cuts have reduced funding for groups like Safe Space. And, indirectly, it shows up in cuts to funding for Legal Aid, a lifeline for victims of domestic abuse who are seeking protection for themselves and their children.

“Legal Aid is facing enormous funding cuts and will be unable to serve victims when they need them,” McCool says. “Over and over (a request for legal assistance) is what we hear from victims who need help. We have nowhere to send them.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.