OPENING one of several folders she carries with her, Sarah Buel
thumbs through the contents to find heart-stopping photos of a
battered woman's face and neck. "These are good photos," she says,
meaning they are irrefutable evidence gathered by the police to be
used against the abuser.
It's trial day in the Quincy District Court. For the next nine
hours or so, Assistant District Attorney Buel moves quietly through
a headlong, chaotic day of court appearances, meetings,
negotiations, and quick discussions with her staff.
She has a singular and passionate purpose: to defend battered
and abused women. In Massachusetts this year, 11 women have been
killed as a result of domestic violence. According to a recent
congressional report, the severity of domestic violence in the
United States has reached the point where four women, on average,
are beaten to death every day.
Outside of court, Buel is a community activist, a spark-plug
leader who has started many advocacy groups to meet the needs of
the victims of domestic violence as well as the abusers.
Here in Norfolk County, she has been instrumental in creating a
domestic-violence intervention program recognized by officials and
foundations as the most effective in the state. At law school in
1988, she founded the Battered Women's Advocacy Project at Harvard
University, a project that continues today.
As a former battered wife who escaped her marriage with her
young son, Buel lived on welfare in the early 1980s while she
stabilized her life. Self-described as "tenacious, tremendously
optimistic, and driven," she sometimes cleaned houses to earn
living expenses while she attended law school on a scholarship.
Eventually she graduated with high honors.
She has testified before Congress and addressed dozens of
conferences on the horrors of, and solutions for, domestic
violence. This year the American Bar Association named her one of
the nation's top 20 young lawyers.
"The FBI says now that one out of every two women in the US will
be in a violent relationship in her lifetime," says Buel, moving
from the scruffy District Attorny's office in the courthouse to a
small, private office to meet with a young woman who was stalked
for weeks by her former boyfriend. "Domestic violence is now the
No. 1 cause of injury to women in this country," says Buel.
In the small office, she dumps the folders on the desk and sits
down opposite a young, dark-haired, neatly dressed woman fidgeting
with her hands. Buel gently questions and listens to the woman.
Repeating what she told the police, the woman says she received
dozens of threatening phone calls from her ex-boyfriend at all
hours of the day and night. At one point he called her every 10
minutes to harass her. Once he came to her house and stood in the
backyard, staring at her. A restraining order didn't stop him.
Later, Buel says this case is the first application in Norfolk
County of the new "anti-stalking" state law, which forbids the
hounding and harassment of one individual by another. Twenty-one
other states now have similar laws.
Buel says, "My job is to seek justice. I'm not a fan of jail,
and I don't hate men, but if we have to protect someone from them
...." She knows of hundreds of cases where men have beaten,
humiliated, or terrorized their wives and girl friends. Or killed
"The typical response in the majority of communities around the
country," she says, "is to tell the woman, `This is your problem;
you figure out how to stop him from beating you up.' But God forbid
that you don't look like the Betty Crocker victim in court, that
you are of color, poor, don't dress appropriately for court, have
tattoos on your arm, have a substance-abuse problem, or you are on
your fifth marriage.
"Judges, and juries in particular, can be so righteous and
judgmental," she continues. "But victims are like our relatives; we
don't choose them, and the law should not distinguish between
victims, the Betty Crocker kind and the other. …