Friday, September 3, 2010

Judicial benchmarking

Earlier this week, I monitored a VOP (Violation of Probation) hearing in Judge Alice Blackwell's courtroom. I first met Judge Blackwell in 2006 when she and Dick Batchelor served as co-chairs of Orange County's Domestic Violence & Child Abuse Commission Implementation Team. She served as the Administrative Judge for Domestic Relations from 2006-2009 and was a crucial player in efforts to improve the way injunction cases are handled. In October, 2009 the Orange County Domestic Violence Task Force recognized her for the outstanding contributions she has made to improving the court system's handling of domestic violence cases.

Judge Blackwell's handling of domestic violence cases is the benchmark for CourtWatchers.  If you're familiar with the Power & Control Wheel, which details the different tactics that abusers use to maintain control over their victims,  you might like to take a look at the corresponding wheel for Judicial Responses to Domestic Violence.  This judge consistently exhibits the criteria  listed in that wheel.

At the beginning of this year, Judge Blackwell rotated out of the Domestic Relations division into the felony VOP courtroom. Even though we miss her presence in the Injunction Court, it's been a pleasure to see a judge who doesn't hesitate to hold offenders accountable for violating conditions of their probation or community control. The defendants in her courtroom have already been convicted of some very serious crimes. Some of them were given the opportunity to avoid incarceration and ordered to probation. Some were given probation after a period of incarceration.

Richard Brace (2007-CF-018059-A-O), age 68, was in her courtroom on Monday for having violated the "no contact" provision of his probation from a 2007 charge of Aggravated Assault w/Deadly Weapon (an automobile) & Battery. Assistant State's Attorney Robert Westmoreland was playing audio recordings of several threatening telephone messages left on the victim's voicemail when we arrived in the courtroom. From our vantage point, it was difficult to discern all that was being said in the recordings, but some of what we could hear was reminiscent of the rage in Mel Gibson's rants against his ex-girlfriend.

Judge Blackwell later characterized his comments as despicable and abusive.

The parties were allegedly permitted by the judge in their divorce case to have contact with one another in order communicate about issues relating to the child.

One of the defendant's messages to his victim indicated that he knew who her new boyfriend was and where he lived.

Lesson #1: Domestic Relations judges need to assign a third party to handle communications regarding children when domestic violence is an issue in their case. Or only permit them to email or text message one another, thus creating evidence that can be used in court.

When the defendant's ex-wife was testifying, Mr. Westmoreland seemed ill prepared as he attempted to put some anonymous letters into evidence (they were not admitted, nor was the victim permitted to testify about their content). Judge Blackwell concluded the victim's testimony with additional questions to obtain facts that the prosecutor did not.

After the State rested its case, Defense Counsel Thomas Matthews elicited testimony from his client that the probation officer, Mr. Wilson with the Florida Department of Corrections, gave him permission to have contact with the victim. Upon hearing this testimony, the prosecutor asked to reopen his case, called the probation officer to the stand (something that should have been done earlier), and asked him about the contact issue. Mr. Wilson testified that he never gave the defendant permission to speak with the victim. Wilson also never contacted the victim to ascertain if his client was telling him the truth about the contact they were having. Wilson stated that he knew, from his client, that the victim had helped take care of the defendant as he was recovering from a heart attack earlier in the year.

Lesson #2: Probation Officers need to maintain communication with the victim when a crime of domestic violence is involved.

Judge Blackwell grilled the probation officer about why he didn't file a violation of probation affadavit a year and half ago, when the contact began. The judge also learned that even law enforcement officers told the defendant that he could have contact with the victim if he only spoke about visitation issues with her.

Lesson #3: When the messages that people receive from those in authority conflict with one another, they will ignore the orders they don't like and abide by those that they prefer.

Mr. Brace admitted that not knowing where his child was every moment made him very frustrated. He became visibly agitated as he told the judge that when his daughter is visiting him, he contacts the victim to advise her of their whereabouts several times during the day (e.g., we just left the bowling alley and we're going to Subway to get something to eat; we just left Subway and we're going to the mall, etc.). He felt that he deserved the same kind of "courtesy" from his ex-wife when their daughter was with her. And he expressed great displeasure that there was a new man in the picture, not knowing what sort of influences to which she might be subjected.

See "Using Children" on the Power & Control Wheel.

The defense attorney argued that there were no threats in the voicemails, to which Judge Blackwell countered that "I know who your boyfriend is and where he lives" is an implied threat.

The judge found that the defendant had willfully violated his probation and sentenced him to an additional year of community control (a more restrictive type of supervision than probation), to be followed by another year of probation. She also ordered he complete the Batterer's Intervention Program. Judge Blackwell took several minutes to explain to the victim why she did not sentence the defendant to prison (the defendant has no prior criminal history aside from this case, had major health issues, and believed that adding 2 more years of supervision to his sentence would be a better way to protect her for a longer period of time than putting him in prison).

Judge Blackwell also expressed great concern for the victim's safety and encouraged her to contact the local domestic violence shelter to develop a safety plan. She also told the parties to set up monitored exchanges with the court for their daughter.

Finally, she emphasized to Mr. Brace exactly what "no contact" means and that she is the only judge that can modify the order. All contact with the victim, outside of a courtroom or legal deposition, was prohibited. She warned him not to try to modify contact provisions with their divorce judge in another county.

Lesson #4: When judges take the time to listen, ask questions, and explain their rulings, treating all parties with courtesy and respect, justice happens.

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