Sunday, November 29, 2009

In New York City, DV cases proceed without victims

By COLLEEN LONG (AP) – 15 hours ago

NEW YORK — Karla Giraldo's face required about 40 stitches after an incident with her boyfriend, a New York state senator. The wife of New York TV personality Dominic Carter had a swollen lip, cut ear, and bruised body after they argued over care for their child. In both cases, the women testified in court that their partners were not guilty.

Giraldo said it was an accident after initially telling doctors her boyfriend did it on purpose, according to testimony. Carter's wife, Marilyn, said it wasn't her husband, as she claimed on a 911 call, but rather a day laborer who hit her.

Their stories are not uncommon. Experts say most victims usually recant after reporting their partners committed the abuse. As a result, the majority of domestic violence cases nationwide are prosecuted without the victim's consent or participation.

Victims, who are nearly all women, are not required to "press charges" against their alleged abusers. Law enforcement officials make the decision based on circumstance, but they face legal hurdles when the victim won't testify. To deal with such an idiosyncratic crime, prosecutors have devised other ways to handle cases. As a result, so-called family justice centers are cropping up around the country, one-stop shopping for victims of domestic violence where they can find social, economic and legal support.

In New York City, Scott Kessler runs the Queens center that prosecutes about 6,000 cases a year, more notably the trial of State Sen. Hiram Monserrate, accused of slashing Giraldo's face in a jealous rage. Kessler argued Karla Giraldo initially told medical personnel it wasn't an accident, and then changed her story when she discovered he'd be arrested. Monserrate was acquitted of the more serious charges but convicted of a lesser charge for dragging Giraldo out the foyer of his apartment in a violent scene caught on video.

Giraldo was called as a witness, where she argued it was an accident and the district attorney's office was out to get Monserrate. It's nothing new for Kessler. "When you stand up on a domestic violence case, you pretty much stand alone," he said. On his turf, the most diverse county in the country, there are many patriarchal systems, and often times the victim's family won't encourage the victim to participate.

Kessler said because he knows women generally won't participate he employs evidence-based prosecution, like photos of the injuries taken by cameras stationed at police precincts, 911 calls delivered electronically to their office and domestic violence incident reports taken by police that use checklists to determine the woman's state.

"We anticipate," he said in his office, surrounded by blown-up photos of bruised and battered women. "And in a way, it takes the pressure off the victim because we can prosecute without them. Of course, it's best if they participate."

There are myriad reasons why victims don't want to move forward with criminal cases, or even report the crime to begin with. Most want the violence to stop, but they don't want the abuser to go to jail, said Bea Hanson, chief program officer for Safe Horizon, a large, nonprofit that offers a range of services for victims of domestic violence.

"Love. Financial dependence. He's a father figure for kids. So many women often think they still may be good father despite the abuse. There are a lot of reasons," she said. "Also there's a fear of retribution. Because most cases there isn't jail time," she said.

The idea behind the family justice center is to provide a network of support for the victim, who will, theoretically, feel comfortable enough at some point to hold their abuser accountable. Services are available in one location, from help with housing to job training, orders of protection and prosecutors working on cases. There are translators who speak hundreds of languages, and there's even a play room where children can go so they don't have to hear about the case.

The centers are run by the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence. Kessler's center opened in 2008. A center in Brooklyn opened in 2005 and prosecutes 9,000 cases annually, and one will be open in the Bronx in about six months. Tens of thousands of clients visit annually. Anyone can use the services, which are free.

"It's a holistic approach," said Wanda Lucibello, who heads the Brooklyn center. "About 60 percent of the people are there because the police have been called, and someone has been arrested. But others come just to get support and assistance."

The idea started about a decade ago, and there are now 55 centers nationwide, according to Casey Gwinn, president of National Family Justice Center Alliance. Gwinn started the first center, in San Diego, in 2002. Twenty-seven organizations came together to provide victim assistance, including social workers and childcare. Gwinn said while initially victims weren't willing to participate, the more support they have, the more the confidence they get.

"They recant often because they're scared and they have no other options," he said. "But if they have resources, they don't recant."

The majority of domestic violence cases are settled outside court, and sentences range from jail time to counseling and electronic monitoring. The recent high-profile trials in New York are not the norm.

NY1 newsman Dominic Carter was convicted of third-degree attempted assault on his wife Marilyn. He is planning to appeal. In his decision, Ramapo Town Justice Arnold Etelson said he found Marilyn Carter's revised story "nothing short of preposterous." His sentencing is set for Jan. 14 and he's taken a leave of absence from the network.

Monserrate will be sentenced Dec. 4. Judge William Erlbaum, ruling in a non-jury trial, said Giraldo's testimony carried more weight than that of the medical personnel, and it had to be taken at face value.

"There are two people who have actual knowledge about what happened in that apartment," Erlbaum said. "Can one know she's not being forgiving or that she's not being compassionate? One can't know that."

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