Thursday, August 27, 2009

It Helps to Have Money When Killing the Homeless

Why does John Hawthorne get $25k bail and home confinement while Tyler Sturdivant sits in jail on no bond?

Both stabbed a homeless man to death.

Hawthorne is charged with 2nd degree murder in the death of Joel Boner, age 30.

Sturdivant is charged with 1st degree murder & robbery w/firearm in the death of Ora James Light, age 51.

Hawthorne has private counsel. Sturdivant has a public defender.

Hawthorne is white. Sturdivant is black.

Both victims were white.

Hawthorne (age 19) has no prior adult criminal history in Orange County.

Sturdivant (age 18) pled no contest in 2008 of possession of a firearm by a minor, possession of a firearm w/ an altered seriel number & carrying a concealed firearm. One other charge, possession of <20g cannabis, was dropped in exchange for the plea. He was sentenced to 23 days jail w/credit for 23 days time served; 2 years probation; 100 hours community service & ordered to forfeit the firearm in October 2008. I can only surmise that this was not Sturdivant's first brush with the criminal justice system because it was transferred from Juvenile to Circuit Court while he was a minor. Nevertheless, both of these young men should be held in jail pending trial. Was it money or race or prior criminal history that caused the system to let one out on bond while the other sits in jail? For more media coverage of these cases, see below.

Sentinel 7/22/09 "Teen charged in Ocoee stabbing death of homeless man"
Sentinel 8/7/09 "Judge sets bond for suspect in homeless man's death"
WFTV 8/24/09 "Stabbing suspect had friend take pics"
Sentinel 8/26/09 "Suspect in slaying of homeless man said he did not fear for his life"

Sentinel 4/17/09 "Arrest made in slaying of man found beneath I-4"
the 13th Juror Blog "I hope it's not somebody I know"

If you read the online comments posted about both cases, you'll see that both victims had families that loved them very much. Whether or not we agree with the victims' choice of a homeless lifestyle, we should all be grieved that these men were killed. And that teenagers are responsible for their deaths.

The situation diminishes our entire community.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Amy's Courage Fund

In April 2002, Amy wrote a note and taped it to the inside of her desk drawer. It read "Today Ron Ball and I are romantically involved, but I fear I have placed myself at risk in a variety of ways. Based on his criminal past, writing this out just seems like the smart thing to do. If I am missing or dead this obviously has not protected me... " Two months after writing this note, Amy Latus tragically lost her life to domestic violence.

Amy's Courage Fund is named in honor of Amy Lynne Latus and the many other victims who have suffered in silence. We all know an Amy -- she's the girl next door, the woman standing in front of you at the grocery store. She's your sister, your mother, your friend, your coworker or maybe even you.

In addition to inflicting physical, psychological and emotional abuse, abusers often financially control their victims — forcing them to quit their jobs, giving minimal allowances to pay for household needs, and taking steps to ruin their credit. As a direct result, many victims lack the financial resources necessary to flee and establish a life free of violence.

The Amy's Courage Fund was established to alleviate the financial constraints that often prevent a victim from escaping abuse. Amy’s Courage Fund provides emergency financial assistance of up to $2,000 to victims of domestic violence and their children to meet their immediate needs after escaping an abusive home.
Since 2003, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) has provided more than $600,000 in emergency financial assistance to families throughout the country, helping them to establish a new life free of violence.

Any adult survivor of domestic violence is eligible to receive funds. However, a domestic violence survivor must work with a domestic violence shelter/program or domestic violence coalition to submit an application for this fund. The following is a list of fundable expenses:
  • Moving and transportation costs for victims who are fleeing, such as plane, train or bus tickets, U-Haul rentals, hotels and other travel expenses;
  • Rent and security deposits for new, safe homes;
  • Utilities, utility deposits and phone hook-ups;
  • Medical expenses such as doctor appointments, medication and prescription eyeglasses;
  • Legal fees and expenses for filing for protection orders, custody agreements and divorce;
  • Car repairs and transportation needs; and
  • Furniture, appliances, clothing and other household goods.
In addition, in times of national crisis - such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita - Amy's Courage Fund extends its emergency grants to domestic violence programs so that they are able to continue providing services in their communities.
While this list is fairly inclusive, there may be circumstances where a survivor has emergency needs that are not on this list. In these instances, agencies are encouraged to apply and clearly articulate how the need is related to a survivor's safety.

NNEDV will disburse grants up to $2,000 per application. The same survivor may not apply for more than one grant in a calendar year. Click here for more information. And contact your local DV Shelter in order to apply.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Shannon Burke's Repentance

I am a firm believer in the argument that God can change a repentant heart. But I also believe that it is wise for a victim of domestic violence to take a significant amount of time (a year perhaps?) before letting their abuser back in the home. It is so easy to believe that the person you love means it when they say they're sorry. And I honestly believe they're genuinely sorry. But "sorry" doesn't mean that the abuse won't happen again. That's where repentance comes in.

Repentance is more than just feeling regret about one's behavior. It means that one turns from sin and dedicates themselves to amending their life. The evidence of genuine repentance is something that has to be seen over a long period of time - not just a few weeks. And it requires the abuser to be willing to be transparent with those who are holding him/her accountable for their behavior. Finally, their intimate partner cannot serve as their accountability partner.

I am concerned for Catherine Burke's safety during this period. Fox35 News reported yesterday Shannon Burke Seeks Reconciliation. It is far too convenient for Burke to blame alcohol for the incident that landed him in jail. Attending AA for 100 days is commendable, and I hope he continues in the program. But it's the tip of the iceburg and it does nothing to address the issue of power & control that is the root cause of domestic violence.

PASCH (Peace And Safety in the Christian Home) is a wonderful organization that deals with educating the faith community about the issue of domestic violence. I hope and pray that the Burkes' marriage counselor is familiar with the dynamics of DV and how religion and faith are sometimes used as a smokescreen that abusers use to get back in their partner's good graces. I'll also reiterate something I wrote after the July hearing when Judge Alva granted contact - both parties need to have individual counseling.

I would hate to add Catherine Burke's name to the list of DV homicides in our community.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Why Does She Stay?

If you've ever found yourself having difficulty extricating yourself from an abusive relationship, or if you have a loved one who is trapped in one, I strongly encourage you to read this article. It's a bit lengthy, but worth every minute you devote to it.

Dr. Joseph M Carver, PhD answers this question better than I've ever been able to do so. Please see:

The Mystery of Loving an Abuser, part 1
The Mystery of Loving an Abuser, part 2

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sometimes It's Tough to Walk Away

Sometimes it's tough to walk away from a hearing, wishing there was more that could be done personally. Wednesday was one of those days.

I was in Judge Theotis Bronson's court for injunction hearings and the Petitioner (age 34) had filed for an injunction against her husband, Edward Demirdjian (age 54), who was in custody for an assault against her. She testified that while on a flight from the Dominican Republic to the US, Demirdjian, in addition to verbally abusing his 3-yr old daughter, told her that her mommy was dead. I initially understood this to be a threat against the Petitioner. However, subsequent testimony revealed that the Petitioner was the child's stepmother. The child's biological mother is indeed deceased - murdered in New York last month. Demirdjian is a person of interest in that shooting.

Several people on the flight reported the conversation to the authorities when the plane landed in Miami. However, the family was cleared to proceed to Orlando. Details are sketchy because I have not reviewed the court file. However, the Petitioner filed for this injuction on 7/29/09, after an assault against her on 7/24 for which Demirdjian was arrested on 8/12. Judge Bronson granted a 12 month injunction and ordered the Respondent to complete BIP.

I learned today that Demirdjian had his Initial Appearance for the 7/24 assault before Judge Martha Adams yesterday (case 2009-CF-0011841-O). In spite of the Assistant State Attorney's representations about his possible role in the New York case and argument that no conditions of release could assure the safety of the victim or his own child, he was released by Judge Adams as follows:
  • $100 bond
  • home confinement with electronic monitoring
  • no contact with the victim or child
  • may return once to the residence with a law enforcement officer to pick up personal belongings
  • maintain a separate residence
  • have no weapons or firearms
  • stay 500' or more away from the wife's residence
Needless to say, CourtWatch will be carefully monitoring this case as it works its way through the criminal justice system.

For victims who want to keep apprised of the custody status of their perpetrator, VINELink can provide updates on their custodial location (as they're moved from one corrections facility/jail to another) or notify them of when their perpetrator has been released. After navigating to the correct page for the state, click on the "Search and Register" tab to locate the defendant and provide your contact email or phone number. The service is free of charge.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Last 10%

In monitoring Judge Theotis Bronson's injunction court this morning, I was pleased to see him do about 90% of what needed to be done. But the last 10% was sadly missing.

When the hearing began, the Respondent (Alton Bell) initially agreed to have an injunction placed on him. As Judge Bronson was telling him that the order would last 12 months he had no objection. Once the judge told him he would be required to complete BIP, he objected and a hearing was held.

The Petitioner and the Respondent have a 1-yr old child together. After her testimony about his assaults and harrassment, the parties accused one another of lying and Bell stood up to walk out of the courtroom (this is a big "no no" - deputies don't take too kindly to this sort of thing). He was admonished by the judge and two heavily armed deputies to sit down. When the judge ordered temporary child support, Mr. Bell was even less inclined to remain in the courtroom and he attempted to walk out a second time. He complied with the judge & deputies' instructions to sit down again.

Judge Bronson ordered a 6-month injunction but neglected to do something that is crucial to solidify its chances of success. He did not take the time to work out a temporary visitation schedule for the child, nor did he work with the parties to designate a friend or family member as the go-between for scheduling visits or monitoring the child while mom & dad exchange her. Usually a third party's home serves as the drop-off / pick-up when the child is not in school or a daycare facility. The judge never inquired about whether she was in daycare or who might be a suitable facilitator.

Judge Bronson and the deputies in the courtroom did a good job in getting the Respondent to sit down and be quiet. But I suspect that Mr. Bell's belligerence is the reason the Court ended the hearing before visitation matters were addressed. Thankfully, he did order BIP, although he did not tell either party he did so in open court. It was attached to the paperwork that was given to the parties at the end of the hearing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Domestic Violence & Animal Abuse in Orange County

The Orange County Domestic Violence Task Force (OCDVTF) meets each month at the courthouse to exchange ideas, network with member agencies, and discuss ways to address the issue of DV in our community.

At today's meeting, a fascinating presentation by Orange Co Animal Services (OCAS) was on the agenda. The Shannon Burke case in Seminole County has spotlighted the correlation between DV and animal abuse in a dramatic fashion. But prior to the Burke shooting incident, Harbor House and OCAS were working on a collaborative effort to train Animal Services' officers to look for signs of DV when investigating cruelty, neglect and abandonment cases. I was astounded to learn that:

  • Up to 75% of domestic violence victims report that their partners threatened or killed family pets
  • 48% of victims delay leaving an abusive home because they do not have a safe place for their pets
  • One million animals per year are abused or killed in connection with domestic violence nationally
  • 32% of pet-owning victims of DV reported that their child had hurt or killed a pet (this statistic demonstrates with chilling vividness how DV is a learned behavior)
  • Animal abusers are 5 times more likely to commit violent crimes against people
  • Animal abusers are 4 times more likely to commit property crimes
  • 70% of animal abusers had records for other crimes

There were 4,106 animal cruelty, neglect and abandonment investigations in Orange County last year. This year's trend is showing a 15% increase over last year. OCAS began partnering with Crimeline earlier this year, resulting in abuse & neglect reports tripling in the first month of the partnership.

Orange County Animal Services and Harbor House are working to build an animal shelter on-site at Harbor House. The goal is to remove the barrier for victims who remain in an abusive situation because they know their abuser will harm their pet. OCAS is also working on a program to provide transportation for animals when victims seek shelter at Harbor House for themselves and their children - something that no other organization in the country provides. To support this worthwhile endeavor, please contact Harbor House.

Investigation of animal abuse is often the first point of social services intervention for a family in trouble. Statistically, 80% of homes with abused pets also had investigations by child welfare agencies due to reports of physical abuse and neglect. It is therefore crucial for all of us to report suspected animal abuse and neglect.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

One Father's Victimization by "The System"

In August, 2008 I received a call from a woman named Carol who is a real estate broker. We spoke at length about a custody case that was before Judge Alan Dickey in Seminole County. I explained to her that we focus on the criminal and injunction courts, though we hope to have enough volunteers and funding to expand into the domestic hearings at some point in the future.

Once she shared with me some of the miscarriages of justice that her friend was experiencing, I told her we would try to attend the hearings as much as possible. Considering some of the allegations involved, and the fact that there are two young children (a 6-yr old boy and 8-yr old girl) being victimized, I am not going to reveal the names of the family involved. Carol was assisting the father, whom the mother claimed had abused her and the children. Interestingly enough, allegations of abuse didn't start until the mother's immigration attorney advised her what she needed to do to be granted citizenship in the USA (police reports alleging abuse and being accepted as a resident into a DV shelter are needed).

Multiple witnesses - the neighbors, the police and even the independent psychologist - testified they never saw one single sign of abuse being perpetrated by the father. The children never indicated any abuse by him either. All the abuse allegations were by people testifying based on what the mother told them. Witnesses alleged that [the mother] has told the children to cross busy 6-lane highways against the lights where motorists have yelled "Lady are you trying to kill your kids?!" The father is terrified she will "accidentally" kill them. Additionally, the daughter alleged that sexual improprieties by a member of her mother's church had occurred while she was in her mother's care. DCF and the judge chose to disregard her allegations because she didn't verbalize them during the interview.

The father's first attorney was less than aggressive in advocating for his client, and Carol believes this is one reason for the judge's seeming bias against him. Carol, as well as our volunteers who monitored the hearing last month, believe that the fact that the father is from Iran worked also against him (the mother is from Turkey).

CourtWatch had two volunteers in Judge Dickey's courtroom for the 2-day hearing held in July. Carol told me after the hearing "I am sure that having 2 courtwatchers sitting there the whole 2 days with the big CourtWatch badge really helped. He [the judge] really seemed (for the first time that I have seen in this case ) that he was really trying to be fair! I was just so pleased that this time he let [the father] speak and didn't shut him up and speak rudely to him this time."

CourtWatcher #1 said "Judge Dickey in my estimation had already made a decision, and possibly before the hearing started. In his ruling he made mention of a previous ruling and declared that he stood by it. . . He believed that [the father] coming home to clean, wash and take care of the kids was controlling behavior. . . Apparently the Guardian Ad Litem was attacked during his testimony by [the mother's] lawyer as being biased in favor of the father. The judge explained, while making his ruling that the GAL had more opportunity to spend with the father due to the circumstances of the mother, her and her friends distrust of the GAL (reasonable or otherwise). Unfortunately the judge used this same explanation to minimize the GAL recommendation, that he [the GAL] didn't get to spend time with the mother, that his report ended at a certain date and it's the judge's belief that the relationship between the mother and the children got better after that date."

CourtWatcher #2 told me "Judge Dickey was fair and courteous to all parties. He did not behave as I had seen him a year or so ago when he would insult attorneys or their clients. The attorneys were well prepared and sharp. Those are my observations as a courtwatcher. Personally, I had no opinion on who should have the children until the last (15th) witness, the guardian ad litem for the children. He finally said what needed to be said and knew how to answer questions so the information did not get choked off or twisted by either attorney. Unfortunately, the children must remain with the mother for at least another week until the verdict is given. A motion by the GAL for immediate reversal of custody was ignored for about 2 months by the judge and he still does not seem concerned, so I do not know how he will rule. I do not know why the Safehouse has kept Mom for 10 months with no evidence of abuse. She seems to be taking advantage of the free lodging, groceries and childcare. The father obviously loves his children and had taken almost sole care of them when the family was together. DCF has apparently let this slide also."

The verdict?

CourtWatcher #2: "I was shocked by Judge Dickey's rulings in this case on Friday [July 31st]. He gave permanent custody to the mother who still lives at Safehouse and works 2 jobs at a deli and cleaning houses. She plans to attend SCC as a full time student this fall also. She has been severe in discliplining the children in the past, keeps few appointments with counselors, avoids contact with child care personnel, and apparently has little one-on-one time with the children. Judge Dickey explains all this as being the father's fault: providing her a car that breaks down frequently, not paying enough for child support, failing to get mother a green card, and being too permissive and lax with the children so they will not obey the mother. The judge says this is all a plot to keep control over the family. He believes the father is playing a game with money, hiding it from the Court. He cites this as the primary weapon of father's control. . . To me, it appears the judge reached his decisions early in this process and has conveniently fit all testimony to his pre-conceived story of control and deceit. It was a circular argument assuming the premise that the father has money no one can find. Expert witnesses were either denied testimony ( Dr. Tressler, child psychologist) or ignored (Mr. MaGill, guardian ad litem). Judge believes Mr MaGill was paid by father, but he was actually paid by the court. . . Perhaps in time his ruling will prove to be injurious to the children and we may need to call him to account. . . Perhaps the judge is right about the father having money he alone controls, but my alarm is that the judge was angry about that and sentenced these 2 children to a miserable life to punish him."

And from Carol: "[The father] hasn't been able to pay the last 2 months rent as it all went to the children's defense. He is giving away his stuff including lots of books, kids books, toys, and other items since he will be forced to move soon and is expecting to be put in jail on September 1st [for Contempt of Court - not paying his ex-wife's legal fees of $20k+]. If you know of anyone who could use these books and toys, let me know. . . No matter what, I do think you made a little difference as the judge wasn't as blatantly rude and biased as usual. I was hoping that meant he was really listening, but as we thought all along, he already had his mind made up."

Judge Dickey had a preconceived notion about this case and after 2 full days of testimony, stood by those preconceptions. What is the point of having a hearing if you're going to ignore the testimony presented? As one courtwatcher said, "Perhaps in time his ruling will prove to be injurious to the children and we may need to call him to account." Does a child have to be injured or killed before the judge is held accountable for this decision? The very thought chills me to the bone. Meanwhile, these two children are exhibiting inappropriate sexual behavior and Judge Dickey refuses to believe that being with Mom is not the in their best interest.

I hope the father in this case is able to appeal the judge's decision, even though his health is poor and he is destitute (he has relied on the generosity of friends to pay for his legal fees and heart medications). He is preparing to be put in jail next month because he simply cannot come up with the thousands of dollars that Judge Dickey seems to believe he can access. Perhaps a father's rights group will sponsor an appeal on his behalf.

If you know of resources that could be of use to him, please email or call me.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hey! What's Happening Up There?

There were several pretrial conferences held at the bench in Judge Murphy's courtroom today. A lot of plea negotiations occur that are inaudible to the folks in the gallery, which I suppose is OK unless you like to know everything that's going on (like I do). But they're also inaudible to the defendants and victims whose lives are at stake. This is a common practice in all the criminal courtrooms, so I'm not just picking on Judge Murphy.

I watched a fairly lengthy bench conference this morning where a female defendant was straining to hear what the attorneys, judge and probation officer were saying about her case. It seems to me that she should have the right to hear what's being discussed. Everything that was said is on the record and is being recorded by the electronic court reporters anyway. So why aren't the defendants and victims given an opportunity to hear these discussions? If I was one of the parties in a case, I would want to know what was being said. Not to mention the fact that it would certainly make my job as a CourtWatcher easier!

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I spent most of the morning today in Judge Michael Murphy's specialized misdemeanor DV court for the VOP (violation of probation) pretrial conferences, hearings and pleas. VOP hearings are important to monitor because it's really where the rubber meets the road. Is the Court going to hold the defendant accountable (post-conviction) if he/she fails to comply with the terms of their probation? Or will they get a "slap on the wrist" and suffer no real consequences?

A defendant can be violated by their probation officer for several reasons that may or may not have anything to do with the original offense. They might fail to keep appointments with their probation officer, pay the costs associated with supervision, test positive for drug usage, etc. Or they might not do what they were instructed to do when sentenced: successfully enroll in and complete classes, evaluations, or treatment programs. Or they might be arrested for new offenses. Additionally, defendants in DV cases will sometimes violate "no contact" or "no hostile contact" orders that were part of their sentence.

Most of the defendants in court today had failed to either enroll in BIP (Batterer's Intervention Program) or had been dismissed by the BIP for reasons that weren't given in open court. Judge Murphy does an excellent job of "selling" defendants on the merits of BIP - explaining that many people benefit from having participated in the program. He even offers defendants the opportunity to avoid jail by revoking (cancelling) their probation, putting them back on pretrial release (which requires weekly supervision), and giving them time to enroll and complete the BIP program - but he hangs a 365 day jail sentence over their head if they fail to comply. CourtWatch would like to see this suspended sentence be a part of their original sentence instead of giving them the opportunity to not comply for several months before having to come before the judge again. Additionally, the defendant is required to come to court every 60 days for a status hearing until they've complied. If they're found to have not complied, the cuffs are slapped on and it's off to 33rd Street they go.

UNFORTUNATELY, it doesn't always work out that way. In State v. Mark William Alvarado (2008MM2643), Judge Murphy only slapped the cuffs on the defendant for 90 days for his repeated failure to comply. Alvarado was adjudicated guilty in May, 2008 of two counts of violating an injunction, got 7 days jail with credit for time served, was ordered into BIP and told to have no contact with the victim. He was also to have a psych evaluation & counseling. Nearly 10 months later, in February 2009, he got another chance to enroll in BIP (having previously failed to do so). In April, another violation was recorded and subsequently amended the following month. Alvarado then failed to appear for his June hearing, so a capias was issued. He appeared 2 weeks later and the capias was quashed (recalled). His July 1st hearing was rescheduled to July 29th when he admitted to violating his probation and was sentenced to 365 days with today being his "turn in date." I learned that the judge had told Mr. Alvarado that if he showed up today, he would give him 90 days instead of the 365, which is what happened.

Judge Murphy does a very good job on the "front end" of his cases - setting terms of pretrial release, bond, etc. CourtWatch would like to see him follow through with more "rubber on the road" in the VOP hearings.