Tuesday, October 28, 2014

play up, play up and play the game

A few days ago the Brattleboro Reformer ran a piece by Mike Faher on a man who repeatedly ignored a relief-from-abuse order, then stole the victim's car and took it to Florida.

The cases against Smith date to summer of 2013, when the former Ludlow man was accused of repeatedly violating an abuse-prevention order. Police said Smith had been text-messaging and calling a Windham County woman with whom he had been ordered to have no contact.

In court documents, Vermont State Police said Smith "texts and calls (the victim) numerous times a day. Too many to document. (The victim) contacts us almost daily about the amount of times Smith has contacted her."

The pattern apparently culminated in Smith taking the victim's car and ending up in Florida, where he has family. He was arrested Aug. 22, 2013, in Florida by the Marion County Sheriff's Department and later was returned to Vermont, where he has been incarcerated since.

Smith eventually pleaded guilty to four violations of an abuse-prevention order and six violations of his conditions of release. He also pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace by phone, and he pleaded no contest to operating a vehicle without the owner's consent. 

The prosecutor in the case, Ashley Harriman, was the one who acted in my cases, first when an obsessive, intrusive neighbor was charged with unlawful trespass, later when he broke in at night threatening to shoot.  The sentence she originally proposed in my case was 2 or 3 to 5 years. The sentence she proposed in the new case was 36 months to 14 years.  In the latter, as far as I can make out, the obsessive behavior took the form of text messages and phone calls; the defendant did not actually break into the house with a weapon threatening violence.  As faithful readers may remember, she settled for 14 months in a plea agreement, without going to trial, because my deposition "showed absence of fear."  The accused served 9 months of the sentence, and was released with no restrictions.

The point to take away from this, anyway, is the startling lack of enforcement of both the abuse-prevention order and conditions of release.  The victim contacted the police almost daily about the frequent violations, and nothing was done.  It was emphatically not the case that, upon the first violation, the person under prevention order was taken into custody so that no further violations could occur.

Now, the victim played the game the way Ms. Harriman likes it to be played: she went right on reporting violations to the police even though the offender remained at large. In other words, she took the risk of reprisals again and again - and she was lucky, as these things go.  The defendant stacked up multiple offenses, duly reported; he did not attack her; he merely stole her car (which has, apparently, not been recovered).

But I was told, when I found a state trooper willing to issue a citation of trespass, that it would be safer to move out of my home to avoid reprisals, in view of the defendant's long criminal record and history of violence.  And I was later told, after the defendant was arraigned and released on bail, with conditions of release, that it was "probably safe to return," but if I had a problem I should call the police. The prosecutor later told me I should report even technical violations, because if there were violations "on a daily basis" this would give leverage to the prosecution - and my victim advocate confirmed that there was no guarantee that a violation would result in the defendant being arrested and taken into custody.  So to play the prosecutor's game I would need not only to report incidents but leave myself open to reprisals by staying where I was, rather than retreating to my sublet in the nearest town.  The final break-in was provoked because the defendant seemed to me to be pushing boundaries, despite a warning that he must be meticulous in observing conditions of release; I sent him an email with a list of actions which would result in an immediate call to the police, and the result was -- an incident which the prosecutor apparently found insufficiently frightening. The idea that failing to call the police after earlier, minor incidents might itself arise from concern for reprisals could not be entertained -- it would implicate both prosecutor and victim advocate in playing games with the victim's safety.

When I was later warned of the defendant's imminent release from jail I went to talk to the Women's Freedom Center, in part to ask whether a stalking order would help.  The question I asked was how consistently these were enforced.  Answer: We'd like to think they're enforced.  Well, I would have liked to think so too, but if they weren't I might be back in a situation where reporting violations did nothing except annoy my faithful admirer.

The piece in the Reformer suggests that my concern was well-founded. 


Amelia P. said...

These cases and law enforcement's reactions to them confound me.

Shouldn't Smith also be charged with theft of a vehicle? I looked up sentencing in VT and theft of anything worth more than $900 can carry a sentence of up to ten years.

The lack of enforcement of these violations combined with the risk of reprisal most certainly puts the victims in danger repeatedly.

And something about how these cases are handled by law enforcement just smacks of misogyny to me. Why should you have to move from your home because of a stalker instead of law enforcement handling him immediately? Why should the other woman have to wait until her car was stolen (and never returned!) to have law enforcement become truly involved.

It's as though the threats are considered jokes until something physical happens - which is what the restraining orders are supposed to prevent.

Sorry to go on. These cases are very troubling to me. I'm so sorry this is happening to you.

Languagehat said...

It doesn't "smack of misogyny," it is misogyny, pure and simple. Things that happen to women aren't seen as important. One of the few bright spots in contemporary America is the growing pushback against this, but I don't hold out much hope for things changing significantly anytime soon; the sexism is too ingrained (and largely invisible to those who don't suffer from it).

Henry Hughes said...

So nice to see this October 28 post from you, Ms. DeWitt. Why is that?

Last night I finally read something of yours, the story in the November Harper's. It was so engaging, odd, brilliant, hilarious. Thrilling, actually, from the get-go.

How on earth had you pulled it off, dropping us into this rollicking skewering already in progress? And why was I still sympathetic to these characters as they bled out from your relentless pokes?

I had to re-read it straightaway, even though it was already past my bedtime the first time through. And then came the self-recriminations (also already in progress, needless to say): How is it that I haven't paid attention to this writer? Glowing reviews by Jenny Turner and Jennifer Szalai and others just glossed over as the years go passing by?!

Calm down, we can't read everyone, especially if our reading habits are not exactly voracious and coherent. So today I looked up what I've been missing, only to find you with a baseball bat by the bed in the LRB.

So it's something of a relief to see this October 28 blog entry, yet the apprehension will persist for obvious reasons. I'm not shocked or even surprised that the law and its fickle, unaccountable enforcement arms won't act to protect you. That story is as common as dirt, though that doesn't make it any less infuriating or tragic.

And imagine if you the victim were, say, a male CEO with a cabin in the woods instead of woman who writes novels. Even though you could afford private security--and even though you might be more willing to use that weed slasher or pull the trigger--you would be unlikely to need any of that. Which is all the more infuriating.

The foregoing is a long-winded way of saying I am so very happy to be reading your work, and so very sorry to learn of your ongoing tribulations. May the situation be resolved very soon.

Finally, Ms. DeWitt, your lack of interest in punishment for its sake is inspiring. Many of us wouldn't come close to being so magnanimous in your place.

Helen DeWitt said...

Amelia, I seem to remember that one of the charges was unauthorized use of a motor vehicle - it may be, of course, that theft was one of the original charges, and it was bargained down.

LH, Have to say, I was shocked at the way no one I dealt with seemed aware that they were reducing women to second-class citizens. Did not like the way they dealt with me, and can't see why this hapless woman was made to go through the rigmarole of reporting repeated violations, with no action taken until the guy actually took her car.

HH, Very glad you liked the story. And thanks for your concern re stalker saga.