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The Court of Lost Souls

Open the doors of Courtroom 303-W and hear the everyday tales of violence, tragedy and heartbreak

The chancellor's case is an exception. Most matters in Protective Orders court are resolved in about thirty minutes. Judge Campbell says this is born of necessity.

"Because this is an emergency courtroom, it requires swift justice," he explains. "You want to establish peace as quickly as possible. And because you're only dealing with a specific statute and a specific part of that statute, the cases lend themselves to quick resolutions." He's referring to that part of Colorado Revised Statute 14-4-101 that allows a restraining order to be granted in domestic-violence cases based upon a "preponderance of evidence." Those seeking restraining orders don't have to prove their cases "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Some cases of battered women leave little doubt that a restraining order is needed. A video about the court produced by Project Safeguard, an advocacy group for abused women, opens with the image of an ambulance pulling into a hospital with its lights flashing. Dora Lee Larson, executive director of Project Safeguard, says this isn't melodramatic.

However, not every hearing results in a restraining order. Throughout the day, while cases are being heard, clerks, lawyers and volunteers negotiate other cases outside in the hallway while children and witnesses look on.

In one case, a contingent of suits works out a deal so that instead of a restraining order (which would go on the defendant's permanent record), two former roommates agree to certain financial terms while also signing a pact that prevents them from revealing each other's homosexuality to any third party.

Such intervention by lawyers is rare in this court. But intervention by Project Safeguard isn't. Present during each court session, representatives of Project Safeguard help abused women make their way through the legal process.

And the advice pays off. More often than not, the women seeking the court's intervention seem more composed and are better prepared than the men during the process.

"There is a definite power shift in the courtroom," says Project Safeguard's Larson. "Because 95 percent of domestic-abuse victims are women, we help demystify the process for them."

When asked if this power shift makes Courtroom 303-W a "women's court," Larson says that it only looks that way to men who are found guilty. "The judges in the court are bright enough to decide where the evidence lies," she says. "The reason why there aren't any advocacy groups in the courtroom for men is because they're not usually victims. In my experience, I've found that when men have a need for something, they usually get it."

Founded in 1984, Project Safeguard was a key player in getting the Protective Orders court started in 1992. Before then, three different courtrooms handled requests for restraining orders, and they had to be squeezed in between other business. But when Colorado legislators strengthened restraining orders by allowing judges to award temporary "care and control" of children, the cases became more complex, says Jacqueline St. Joan, the judge who spearheaded the new court's creation. Setting up a courtroom to handle only restraining orders "was an idea that was apparent to a lot of people," she says. The separation made it easier for Project Safeguard volunteers to shepherd women through the process.

"Nationally, there is a 40 to 50 percent return rate for women asking for their TROs to become permanent," says Larson. "But in Denver, that rate is up around 60 percent." She says Project Safeguard's direct involvement has helped boost that percentage above the national average.

However, despite the growing percentage of Denver women who are making their temporary restraining orders permanent, Courtroom 303-W is still a frustrating and bewildering place to many people.

"Society still does not understand why women stay in relationships," Larson says. "Society thinks women should just leave an abusive relationship without a restraining order. I was even in a meeting recently with a doctor who said that he doesn't recommend that women get restraining orders, because they only make the men more angry. Well, that's a crock. The truth of the matter is that women can't just leave [a relationship], because they die when they do."

Mary Martinez may die of old age before she gets out of her abusive relationship. She says she and her husband, Rudolfo, have been married 51 years. Now in their seventies, the diminutive couple walk slowly to the front of the courtroom for their hearing. Neither has a lawyer or witnesses. They're just two senior citizens standing in front of Judge Manzanares. Mary Martinez leans against her cane and asks that the temporary restraining order against her husband be made permanent. Rudolfo scratches his bald spot.

"When was the first time Mr. Martinez abused you?" the judge asks.
Mary thinks for a moment before answering confidently, "1960. Two years after we were married." She's probably got her dates wrong, but many things seem hazy to them both. "We tried intervention in 1989, and he promised in front of a priest that he'd stop drinking," Mary says. "But he's an alcoholic, and when he gets drunk, he gets violent. What the priest said was 'He drinks, then he provokes.'"

The five-foot-five Rudolfo sits at the defendant's table and fiddles with some pens in his breast pocket as Mary continues.

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