Justice Delayed

I did not see the attack coming, even though the marriage was in crisis. My husband was troubled. For the past four months, he'd medicated himself with a nightly dose of alcohol and television. He was hostile. He was depressed. He was contemptuous and suspicious, interrogating me if I bought new clothes or left the house alone. He made bizarre, irrational statements that I had had "multiple affairs."

"You've been cheating on me for years," he would say, apropos of nothing. "Who have you had sex with today? Even I can see what's going on."

His accusations hurt and confused me. Why was he behaving this way? I wasn't unfaithful to him--not then, not ever--but he refused to believe that. I tried to get him to a marriage counselor, I tried to be supportive. I could neither convince nor comfort him.

"He's playing mind games with you," said the counselor. "Don't get into a dialogue with him. The question is how much can you tolerate his character flaws. It's not your job to take care of him. You have to disengage at some point."

And just as I began to give serious thought to disengagement, and how I'd manage that with a baby and a preschooler and a full-time job and a mortgage, I made a stunning discovery: My newly paranoid husband had a hidden stash.

I needed to use his car one afternoon to haul a piece of furniture. While making room for it in the trunk, I moved the jumper cables and uncovered a plastic drugstore bag. Inside was a large box of condoms and a receipt dated three months back. Nine condoms left, three missing.

Wife: I'd like an explanation for these condoms.
Husband: (Laughs.) They're for emergencies.

"If he wants to self-destruct your marriage, he can," said the counselor. "I recommend you sit down with an attorney."

On the next business day, I sat and talked divorce with the woman I'd eventually hire to represent me. I knew right then I'd go through with it. But I needed a few weeks--to prepare myself, to take care of business, to talk with friends. My husband and I barely interacted now. He lived downstairs. I lived upstairs. I treaded lightly.

I didn't want to trigger his anger, but I wasn't expecting physical violence. Passive aggression had been my husband's game. Over the years he had perfected his stonewalling skills, in both the marriage and the workplace. He resisted authority. He withheld information. He refused to cooperate. He distorted facts. He denied problems.

All that repressed fury exploded on a Saturday night in the summer of 1995. He tried to force the most degrading kind of sex upon me. He followed up the violence with terror by threatening to separate me from our two children. The police arrested him in his underwear. And he's been lying about what he did--to parents and friends and attorneys, to psychologists and probation officers and judges--ever since.

"He probably intuited that he was losing more control--that's when the bad behavior accelerates," commented a friend in the aftermath of the attack. "It sounds like he's living in a real separate reality."

The facts of my domestic-violence experience are at once intimate and insidious, the kind of abuse perpetrated behind closed doors by men who feel entitled to control their women. Because of the sexual nature of this crime, the case files are protected, available only to the attorneys of record and to me, the victim. It's the kind of demeaning experience a woman has every right to file away forever.

But I think the case needs to be scrutinized. It illustrates not just the failings of one man, but the inability of the criminal-justice system to deal with him quickly and effectively. Nearly three years after the offense, the courts have yet to make this convicted wife-batterer pay for his crime or seek help for his behavior. Faced with an obstructionist, the system has been tied up in knots.

He won't say what he did. He won't do what they say. And though the divorce was long ago resolved, my ex-husband's criminal case lives on in the Colorado Court of Appeals, where it will likely remain for another year and a half. He has retained and dismissed a handful of attorneys. Now he represents himself. With any luck, he will finally do his jail time at the turn of the century.

"It's frustrating," a prosecutor admitted after the last court date, where, despite the state's efforts to get him jailed for violating the terms of his probation, it became clear that my ex-husband's day of reckoning would be postponed. "He's obviously thumbing his nose at the system. He's very manipulative. I've never seen a probation revocation take this long."

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