Systematic Failure

What would the criminal justice court system look like as it pertains to domestic violence if it were designed today? Years ago, domestic violence wasn’t considered a crime. Beating your wife was like vandalizing your car. It’s stupid to mess up your own property, but not criminal. Now, people recognize domestic violence as the crime it is. However, the current system reflects the old way of thinking more than the new one.

Naturally, this leads one to wonder why the system hasn’t been revamped. Domestic violence is the single most complex crime, and as such, it deserves the attention of specialized court system. There needs to be a court specifically designed to handle domestic violence cases, so that everyone who works within this specialized system will be specialized. The lawyers, the judges, the court personnel — all of them should be specifically trained in domestic violence, so we can tackle this epidemic effectively.

A unique Domestic Violence court system is a feasible goal. But first, it needs to be thought of as a priority. And for inscrutable reasons, domestic violence doesn’t make the cut. Domestic violence is the most underreported crime (National Crime Statistics Report, 1993), and so the statistics that we have do not reflect the full magnitude of domestic violence. But even with this missing data, studies show every 9 seconds, a woman is battered (Family Violence Prevention Fund, 1994). Approximately 25 percent of women are victims of intimate partner violence during their lifetime.  According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 2001, over 1,300 murders were committed by a spouse or intimate partners. These numbers equate to nearly four murders a day. Thirty-one percent of women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives (Commonwealth Fund survey, 1998). In 1995, the cost of intimate partner rape, physical assault and stalking totaled $5.8 billion each year for direct medical and mental health care services and lost productivity from paid work and household chores. When updated to 2003 dollars, the cost is more than $8.3 billion (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. 2003).

These numbers are huge, and if you take into account the fact that many cases of domestic violence aren’t reported, then the numbers get even bigger. All these numbers should add up to change. All these numbers should tell people that something is wrong. And not only is it wrong, but it’s expensive — both in terms of lives and money. Domestic violence may occur “inside the home” but it is everybody’s problem. Every single one of us — male or female, child or adult, we all pay for domestic violence. And perhaps the most frightening fact of all is that domestic violence is a generational crime. This means that the above numbers will multiply as the generation witnessing or being targeted by the violence grows older.

Yet, everything is still more or less the same. Domestic violence is not decreasing in scale or incidence. One in five high-school girls are still being sexually or physically violated. Moms are still dying. Children are still growing up watching daddy hit mommy. Judges still send partners back out of the courthouse and tell them to forgive and forget, as if the victim can control the violence.

In fact, the victim has no control whatsoever; the offender uses violence as a means of wresting control from his victim. Domestic violence is a learned behavior. If a man beats a woman once, he will beat her twice. If you put him in jail for a short period of time, he will emerge with the angry belief that it was his wife or girlfriend’s fault that he was imprisoned, and he will seek revenge. Unless courts intervene right away, at the first instance of violence, the cycle will become nearly impossible to break. Courts must prescribe batterers’ intervention and other forms of offender treatment to first-time offenders. So-called Anger Management, which is often the go-to answer, is simply not an antidote to domestic violence. Men who are violent with their intimate partners manage their anger extremely well; after all, they only show their anger in the private sphere, behind closed doors. If a man learns that he can get away with abusing his girlfriend or his wife without suffering the same sort of consequences he might for beating a coworker, then he will keep doing it. Domestic violence is a learned behavior. Domestic violence follows a pattern. These two key attributes render domestic violence and domestic homicides the most predictable of crimes.

However, courts historically have refrained from looking at patterns. Instead, there is a long-standing precedent for courts only to pass judgments on specific, isolated incidents. This works for the majority of cases, but when it comes to domestic violence, this method falls flat. Again, this is because domestic violence is a pattern, and so a proper sentencing requires consideration of all evidence. Good judges will ask for the context of a crime and they will ask for all related incidents. Unfortunately, not all judges are good judges.

Let’s look at a case that unfolded right here in Louisville, Kentucky in 2008. William “Gerry” Seidl and Dorene Seidl had been married for 47 years. On August 25, 2008, Gerry shot and killed Dorene. Just five days before, Dorene Seidl appeared before Judge Joseph O’Reilly to ask for an order of protection. In the petition, Dorene claimed that her husband had previously put a gun to her head, and on a separate occasion had told her “I’m just going to kill myself and get it over with. Do you want to go with me?” She had just separated from her husband, and testified that she was afraid for her life as he had threatened to kill her if she left. (For all those who ask, “Why doesn’t she leave?” this is why: women who leave are 75% more likely to be attacked and killed.) The judge told her that it was a “he said, she said” case, and denied her the protective order. When she was murdered a few days later, Judge O’Reilly said his prayers were with the family, but he upheld his decision, saying that he did not find the burden of proof that violence occurred to issue a Domestic Violence Order.

He couldn’t find the burden of proof? Now, no judge wants someone in their court to wind up in the obituary pages, but it’s hard to believe that Judge O’Reilly couldn’t find any evidence of violence. Dorene gave sworn testimony at her court hearings. Sworn testimony is evidence. Additionally, after the murder, local papers came out with many illuminating pieces of information — information that Judge O’Reilly should have known. “She had two prior judicial findings of domestic violence,” said Marcia Roth of the Mary Byron Project.

“When an older woman has to become public and say that the man she’s been married to, in this case for 47 years, has been abusive, I would think that would cause someone to pay attention to what she’s saying,” Roth said. 

And it’s not like Judge O’Reilly didn’t know about any of this history. There was a paper trail he could have followed, and moreover, Dorene testified before him on August 20 and told him the history. During the hearing, Mrs. Seidl said that she had been granted a protective order from her husband in 1995 to 1996. In that 1995 petition, she stated to authorities that her husband didn’t want her to go to jury duty, got out a pistol, put in a clip and allegedly said, “I will kill you.”  She retold this story and many others to Judge O’Reilly. If you watch the recording of the hearing (which I have), then you’ll notice that Dorene and Gerry told the Judge a whole lot of stories. He seemed impatient with both of them and disinterested in what they had to say. Of course, he couldn’t have foreseen the murder, but if he had taken the two more seriously, perhaps he could’ve prevented it.

Why do I say this? Because of this: Judge O’Reilly asked both Gerry and Dorene for their final words before he made his ruling. Gerry blabbered about how much he loved his wife and how much he was looking forward to their 50th anniversary in three years. Dorene was more concise. She simply said, I’m going to divorce you. And that was it. Dorene avowed that she was going to leave for good. Her chance of critical injury jumped 75 percent. Her words coupled with the Judge’s denial of protection essentially sealed Dorene Seidl’s fate.

Since Judge O’Reilly denied Dorene the DVO, the EPO that was temporarily in effect automatically expired. The EPO had given the police the right to take away Gerry’s guns, but since the DVO was not granted, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office had to give Gerry Seidl his guns back. In a calculated move, Gerry gave the guns to his son-in-law and told him to let Dorene know that the guns were no longer in his possession. He then went out and bought a new gun for himself — a purchase he would not have been able to make if the judge had issued a domestic violence order.

 On August 25, Dorene went to the house she shared with her husband in order to pick up some belongings. She thought she’d be safe; to her knowledge, Gerry no longer had any guns and she even brought a relative along just in case. Little did she know that her husband, who repeatedly swore his love for her under oath, had gone out and purchased a gun specifically for her murder. Gerry Seidl shot and killed his wife of 47 years as soon as she walked into range of his gun.  

Clearly, judges are not perfect. They are fallible and vulnerable to prejudice just like every other human being. But unlike every other human being, judges are given godlike power to decide the fate of the people who appear before the court. Obviously there should be some oversight, but the truth is that the little oversight that exists doesn’t do a whole lot.

Every state has some sort of committee that oversees that retirement and removal of judges. However, it is unclear how exactly the committee is chosen and how exactly it works. There is very little transparency, and the public has virtually no ability to do anything about bad judges except vote them out of office. And as a previous post pointed out, most people are unaware of judges’ track records, and most people are likely to vote for the judge with name recognition —that is, the one already instated. And so, unless the public gets access to court records and takes advantage of reading them (which is unlikely), no one, except for those in the courtroom, really knows who the good judges are.

There is no oversight, except by the electorate. And that is why we, the people, must get involved.