A Shock to the System

The rush to protect battered women has turned domestic violence into "the social issue of the nineties"-- and raised issues of fairness for both perpetrators and victims.

Domestic violence has a way of reaching out and touching the rest of society, sometimes with fatal consequences.

The cases that get the headlines are those in which someone dies. A man shoots his wife in a fit of obsession and rage. A woman uses an ax on her sleeping boyfriend, who she claims beat her.

On April 28, 1995, Albert Petrosky went on a triple-homicide rampage outside an Albertsons supermarket in Lakewood. A little more than a year later, Debra Cameron was murdered in a downtown Denver parking garage by her husband, Duncan, an attorney and former Denver prosecutor. A Good Samaritan who rushed to Debra's aid, 23-year-old college student Nathan Clarke, was killed by Duncan when he interrupted the attack.

It is the felony cases, the worst crimes, that advocates point to when explaining the need for the laws and the plethora of specialized programs and studies that have sprung up in response to the issue.

But the vast majority of domestic-violence arrests are for misdemeanors--incidents that range from criminal mischief (throwing a coffee cup on the floor) to third-degree assault (slapping or pushing). As a result, so are the vast majority of the programs and studies aimed at processing offenders.

Of the 9,128 domestic-violence cases reported to the CBI in 1996, 7,219, or nearly 80 percent, were for misdemeanor assault, which is defined as causing "physical pain" but no injury. The next highest was aggravated assault, a felony, at about 10 percent, followed by 510 misdemeanor incidents of intimidation, at 6 percent. Murder represented less than two-tenths of a percent of arrests, sex offenses about three-tenths of a percent. Domestic-violence-related city-ordinance violations in Denver, one of several municipalities that don't report their numbers to the CBI, would add another 6,000 "minor" offenses, further skewing the percentages.

Nobody doubts that domestic-violence cases should be strenuously prosecuted. But driven by mandatory arrest and so-called "no-drop" prosecution laws, along with the fear of letting a killer-in-the-making fall through the cracks, the state is casting an ever-widening net in search of offenders. "We like to think of our program as 'homicide prevention,'" says Pam Russell, a spokeswoman for Jefferson County's Fast Track program.

However, in the race to protect victims, the state sometimes pushes the edge of the envelope. The aggressive prosecution of misdemeanor offenses can clog the system, producing results far from what anyone intended. And sometimes victims are the ones who get stuck.

State statutes define domestic violence as "an act or threatened act of violence upon a person with whom the actor is or has been involved in an intimate relationship." Over the past few years they've been expanded to include any crime or municipal-ordinance violation against a person or property "when used as a method of coercion, control, punishment, intimidation, or revenge." Today, cruelty to animals and telephone harassment qualify as domestic-violence offenses. For a time, police in Denver even logged confrontations between adult siblings or teenagers and their parents as domestic-violence incidents; they recently stopped doing so after prosecutors told them siblings don't fit the state's definition of an "intimate relationship"--and after concluding that they simply didn't have a place to put all the misdemeanor juvenile offenders.

The theory behind casting a wide net is that abusers tend to escalate--from throwing a coffee cup one day to throwing a punch the next. "Battering is a pattern, a reign of force and terror," according to one Jefferson County training manual. "Once violence begins in a relationship, it gets worse and more frequent over a period of time."

However, while advocates say that domestic violence nearly always manifests itself as a pattern of abuse, all it takes to be prosecuted is a single step over the line.

Denver defense lawyer Patrick Mulligan remembers a case in which a client got into an argument with his girlfriend at their suburban home. "There was not a punch or a kick," he says. "She later alleged that he shoved her, though that remains in dispute. But what really got him in trouble was, when she threatened to call the police, he said, 'No, you're not,' and pulled the plug on the telephone.

"There were still other ways she could have contacted the police. He did not try to stop her from leaving the apartment. Or tie her up. Or even prevent her from using the other two telephones in the apartment. Instead, she went to bed.

"It wasn't until the next afternoon, while she was at work, that she decided to call the police. He was arrested and had to spend the night in jail."

Mulligan's client, a blue-collar worker, was originally charged with a felony offense under a state wiretapping statute that prohibits anyone from preventing or interfering "in any way" with a telephone call. "It's so ambiguous that if you prevent your daughter from making a call by saying, 'No, you have to do your homework first,' you could be charged," he says.

The wiretapping offense is punishable by up to eighteen months in prison. "And because it's a felony," adds Mulligan, "it has powerful consequences for your future, especially when it comes to employment."

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