Domestic Abuse Courts Considered Seminar on Family Violence Opens Some Eyes in Local Law Enforcement

Article excerpt

Men who batter the women and children in their lives may find themselves facing a new court system in Madison County designed specifically to prosecute them.

With lessons from a two-day "family violence symposium" last week ringing in their ears, officials in Madison County are planning to study the idea of a centralized court in Edwardsville especially for such cases.

At the symposium in Collinsville, experts from across the country told more than 500 people how to change attitudes about domestic violence, how to set up specialized courts, and how to prosecute in ways that do not put burdens on the victims.

State's Attorney William R. Haine said applying those lessons could lead to dramatic improvements in the county's efforts to fight violence against women and children. Those cases now are prosecuted through local courts in five cities, which makes it extremely difficult for prosecutors to track the cases, follow up on them and deal with victims in the proper way.

Chief Circuit Judge Nicholas G. Byron, who sponsored the symposium, said he would appoint a steering committee to study domestic violence and the idea of a new court. He said the need was apparent - judges in the county already have issued 500 orders of protection this year for victims of violence.

One of the experts at the symposium drew an enthusiastic response to his lecture about prosecuting batterers without testimony from victims.

Casey G. Gwinn, an assistant city attorney for San Diego, Calif., has spent 10 years working on a widely praised program he said relieves women of the risky burden of participating in the cases against the men who beat them. Under his program, women are not even asked if they want to prosecute when they are interviewed by the police, hospital workers or prosecutors.

"If someone robs a bank, we don't ask the teller if he wants to press charges," Gwinn said.

He added dryly, "The victims rarely testify in murder cases, but we get convictions because we define murder as a serious crime."

He said 70 percent of domestic violence cases can be prosecuted without the victim's cooperation. A third of the convictions in his office last year came without testimony from victims.

In fact, he said, officials have learned how to put together such stron g evidence that 19 percent of the convictions were in cases where the victim had been convinced to testify in defense of the batterer.

Gwinn listed 15 alternative forms of evidence, including photos of the victims' injuries, tapes of 911 calls, testimony from police or emergency workers, medical records, letters from the abuser to the victim, records of calls from the batterer in jail, torn clothes and damaged furniture. …