Ruling Fails To Hold Offender Accountable For Facebook Threats

elonsisAdvocates for victims of domestic violence are disappointed the Supreme Court ruled to throw out the conviction of Anthony Elonis, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who made chilling and vivid threats on Facebook to harm his estranged wife and others.

The Supreme Court on June 1 said it was not enough that an ordinary person would find Elonis’ rap-style social media posts threatening. “The narrow opinion said it was not necessary to address whether the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protected Elonis’ Facebook statements, the Washington Post wrote. “The opinion also declined to take a position on whether it would be enough for a conviction to show that a defendant had been reckless in making inflammatory statements.”

The justices heard the case of Elonis vs. United States on December 1, 2014. Elonis is challenging a 44-month prison sentence he served for Facebook that appeared to threaten his wife with violence. Even after a restraining order, Elonis continued to post. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 44 months in prison.

He claimed the posts were meant as jokes and are protected under the First Amendment. Further, he contends that under the federal threat statute, the jury must find that he intended his Facebook posts to be threatening. (The ruling did not address the First Amendment question.)

His wife clearly considered his posts threatening. “I felt like I was being stalked,” she testified. “I felt extremely afraid for mine and my children’s and my family’s lives.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence criticized the ruling, saying, “We believe a reasonable person standard is appropriate for conviction of threatening under the statute at issue.”

The organization noted that Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “[t]hreats of violence and intimidation are among the most favored weapons of domestic abusers, and the rise of social media has only made those tactics more commonplace.”

But advocates for victims of domestic violence worry the ruling will make it difficult for victims to find protection from online threats.

“The Internet is the crime scene of the 21st century,” Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, told the Washington Post. “The laws governing social media require swift interpretation to keep pace with the ever-advancing criminal activity in this space.”

It’s Outrageous That Ray Rice’s Domestic Violence Charges Dropped

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, right, speaks alongside his wife Janay during an NFL football news conference, Friday, May 23, 2014, at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. Ray Rice spoke to the media for the first time since his arrest for assaulting his fiance, now his wife, at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, right, speaks alongside his wife Janay during an NFL football news conference, Friday, May 23, 2014, at the team’s practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. Ray Rice spoke to the media for the first time since his arrest for assaulting his fiance, now his wife, at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Remember your outrage at news that Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked his fiancée unconscious? Remember being outraged that the NFL commissioner suspended Rice for just two games before he (supposedly only then) saw the video of the violent incident and indefinitely suspended Rice? Prepare to be outraged again: A New Jersey judge last week dismissed domestic violence charges Rice because he had completed the terms of his pretrial intervention.

Under terms of the program, Rice paid $125 in fines and received anger management counseling, AP reported. The intervention program is seen as a key tool as the state tries to keep low-level suspects out of jail, the news outlet wrote. Only 70 of the more than 15,000 domestic violence assault cases adjudicated from 2010 to 2013 in New Jersey’s Superior Court were admitted into the pretrial intervention program, the AP reported. According to New Jersey guidelines, offenders who commit violent crimes should “generally be rejected” from the program.

Cue the outrage.

Why is Rice considered a low-level suspect? The incident made public was clearly violent, no matter how many times Rice and his lawyer call it “a misunderstanding.” When high-profile celebrities and athletes are not held accountable, it sends a message that they are above the law. Authorities here missed a chance to show their intolerance for domestic violence.

The outcome of the Rice case, unfortunately, is all too common. Of the 15,029 people charged in New Jersey with assault in domestic violence cases from 2010 to 2013, 8,203 had their cases dismissed or downgraded to a lower court, according to the data provided by the state judiciary, AP reported. Nearly 3,100 pleaded guilty, 13 were found guilty at trial and nine were found not guilty.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) called the intervention program for Rice inappropriate. “Given the severity of Mr. Rice’s violence and the charges filed against him, it is concerning that this program was ever presented, and accepted as an option,” the statement said.

“This is an example of why victims don’t come forward, why they do not feel safe, and why we still can’t trust systems to hold perpetrators accountable,” NCADV Executive Director Ruth Glenn said in a statement.

Huge Percentage of Cases Never Prosecuted, Pulitzer Report Notes

abused womanOne story in the Pulitzer-Prize winning series about domestic violence recounts some of the reasons offenders are not held accountable for their crimes. “Cases against domestic abusers fall apart on a regular basis, allowing them to escape punishment and continue to mistreat the women in their lives — at times, with deadly results,” the reporters write in Part Five: “Cases fall apart, abusers go free.”

Advocates will likely be familiar with the examples The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, found. In one case, the male perpetrator posts bail within hours of being charged with criminal domestic violence. “Then the charge goes away entirely after his girlfriend has second thoughts about testifying,” the story says.

Contributing to the problem are the perennial challenges of overcrowded court dockets, poorly trained law enforcement, and victims “too scared to testify against the men who beat them.” Most troubling in South Carolina was “a domestic violence law that treats first-time offenders about the same as shoplifters and litterbugs.”

The high number of cases dismissed is also troubling. The newspaper found that about six in 10 domestic violence cases in Charleston and North Charleston municipal courts between 2009 and 2013 were dismissed or dropped by prosecutors. The number of dismissed cases remains high even after then-Attorney General Charlie Condon in 2001 ordered prosecutors to pursue convictions even when victims refused to cooperate.

“Our biggest issue is the lack of cooperation from victims,” 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson told the paper.

Prosecuting a case without a victim is difficult. The strongest witness is often the victim. As the story put it: “To make a case stick, it usually comes down to the woman testifying against her man.”  South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson encourages prosecutors to pursue cases even when victims are hesitant. His words to victims point to the broad impact of domestic violence. “This is not your cross to bear,” the paper reported him as saying. “This is my burden. … He has committed a crime against the state.”

Pulitzer-Prize Winning Series On Domestic Violence Sets Precedent For Transparency

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The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, this week was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service for “Till Death Do Us Part.” The five-part series published in August 2014 spurred reform to domestic violence laws for the first time in at least a decade. South Carolina “for more than 15 years was among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men,” the paper reported in the introduction to its multimedia project. “The state topped the list on three occasions, including this past year, when it posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate.”

Journalists consider winning a Pulitzer akin to winning an Olympic medal. The Post and Courier’s ambitious project won journalism’s gold medal with “Till Death Do Us Part.” The Pulitzer jury called it “a riveting series that probed why South Carolina is among the deadliest states in the union for women and put the issue of what to do about it on the state’s agenda.”

The story “revealed numerous failings, including limited police training, inadequate laws, a lack of punishment, insufficient education for judges, a dearth of support for victims and traditional beliefs about the sanctity of marriage that keep victims locked in the cycle of abuse,” the paper said. They called this “a corrosive stew” that made the state one of the deadliest states in the nation for women.

The series is a well-written, well-produced project about a perennial problem. It deserves journalism’s highest honor for shining light on the problems and “shaming” officials to make changes. Six months after the series was published, state lawmakers, prosecutors and police pledged “this is the year we finally pass a comprehensive bill” on domestic violence. Some parts of the proposed laws have stalled, but the paper continues to aggressively cover developments.

Big Mountain Data cheers this work. We’re especially pleased with the precedent the paper set by partnering with the Center for Investigative Reporting and compiling a database of those killed at the hands of intimate partners. They used police reports, court records, criminal rap sheets and other documents to plot where each killing took place. Then they looked for trends. In addition, they studied conviction rates and plea deals, which the paper’s executive editor pointed out in his prize application letter, the state judicial system does not track.

The paper set a valuable precedent in linking online to every fact and statistic they reported. Access to records varies by municipalities. But this project highlights the value of making criminal records public.

Texas Judge Meets With Offenders In Unusual Program

State District Judge Rick Magnis congratulates a graduate of his Felony Domestic Violence Court Program. Photo by Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer, Dallas Morning News

State District Judge Rick Magnis congratulates a graduate of his Felony Domestic Violence Court Program. Photo by Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer, Dallas Morning News

In February, three high-risk offenders in Texas graduated from a yearlong program that included GPS monitoring, classes to prevent abuse, and regular meetings with a judge. Despite limited evidence of the success of batterer intervention programs, the initial success of the Texas program provides a potential model for other communities.

State District Judge Rick Magnis launched the program in January 2014, and about 36 offenders who “showed signs of deadly behavior, such as strangulation or stalking” have participated, the Dallas Morning News reported. It’s thought to be the only program of its kind in Texas.

Magnis described his role as expanding beyond disciplinarian and including an interest in the men’s lives. “I want to have a relationship with them because I think some of them want to and sincerely can change, and I want them to know I’m here,” Magnis told the Dallas Morning News. But, he added, “I want them to know if they hurt someone, they’re going away.”

The judge praised the three men for sticking with the program and staying out of trouble. The men will have to report to Magnis quarterly for the next year. They will also meet regularly with a probation officer. The judge ordered their names withheld to protect their identities as an effort to allow them to keep jobs and avoid violence. (We wrote about identifying offenders on April 2, and we’ll write more about the issue in future posts.)

Magnis conceded the program was not easy – or fun. “But I do want all three of you to stay out of the penitentiary, and I do want people you’re with to feel nurtured and loved, and not hurt,” he told the paper.

The graduates received medallions and certificates. “It wasn’t easy, but this is a reward,” one graduate told the paper. “I feel like we’ve all become better men for it.”

Family Justice Centers: A Best Practice

A broad survey by the Police Executive Research Forum reinforces the benefits of Family Justice Centers in addressing domestic violence. The concept Under_One_Roof_copyrefers to a multi-agency service delivery model where “multi-disciplinary team of professionals who work together, under one roof, to provide coordinated services to victims of family violence,” according to the Family Justice Center Alliance. The centers offer one place for victims to ‘talk to an advocate, plan for their safety, interview with a police officer, meet with a prosecutor, receive medical assistance, receive information on shelter, and get help with transportation,” the organization’s site explains.

The PERF study, which included 358 law enforcement agencies, found that 43 percent of responding agencies have a specific unit devoted to domestic violence cases. The average size of these specialized units is 11 people; the median staff includes 5 people.

Survey respondents working in Family Justice Centers affirm the model’s value. “Every day we are collaborating and sharing information,” Sgt. Jordan Satinsky of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department told PERF researchers. “We know each other and have built trust with each other,” said Sgt. Rachael Van Sloten of Oakland, California.

The concept dates to the late 1980s, and in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice identified the San Diego Family Justice Center model as a best practice in the field of domestic violence intervention and prevention services. In 2003, then-President George W. Bush created a $20 million initiative to create these one-shop centers.

According to the Department of Justice, documented outcomes of Family Justice Centers include: reduced homicides; increased victim safety; increased autonomy and empowerment for victims; reduced fear and anxiety for victims and their children; and reduced recantation and minimization by victims.

Download a 2007 DOJ report here, which outlines specific best practices.

Download “The Family Justice Center Collaborative Model,” published in 2008 in the St. Louis University Law Review. Its authors are four directors of Family Justice Centers.  About 80 Family Justice Centers operate across the United States. Experts clearly support the model, and they appear to be successful. So why doesn’t every community have one?

Tougher Laws Proposed in South Carolina on State’s High Domestic Violence Rate

Proposed changes to South Carolina’s domestic violence law could increase the penalties for offenders and make it harder for them to reoffend.

Proposals include revoking gun ownership rights for 10 years for many domestic violence offenders. This sensible policy would both keep victims safer and make it more difficult for offenders to escalate violence and face further criminal charges.

nikkiA Greenville Online editorial concedes that limiting gun ownership does not guarantee an end to repeated domestic violence incidents. “Louisiana adopted such a law last year and the results six months after it was implemented show the law restricting gun ownership has had little impact to date,” the editorial says.

Legislative proposals in South Carolina also support increasing jail time and fines for offenders; reforming bond provisions and improving educational efforts. Another proposal would create a tiered system for charging offenders, which would allow prosecutors more leeway in imposing punishments most appropriate for the level of abuse.

According to a 2013 report by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), in a single 24-hour period, more than 66,000 victims of domestic violence received help and support from service organizations in the United States. In South Carolina, 475 domestic violence victims were served by 11 programs that participated in the count.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has created a task force that hopes to change the state’s generational cycles of domestic abuse. The task force and the bills follow a series by The Post and Courier that reported that 300 women in the state were killed by their husbands and boyfriends in the last 10 years. For more than 15 years, South Carolina has been among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men, the newspaper reported.

One reason for that, experts say, is an entrenched history of domestic violence. Gov. Haley hopes the state’s task force will change the culture. “What you hear is whispers,” Haley said in early February. “People whisper about domestic violence. They pray about it, but they don’t talk about it. If we are not talking out loud about it, we are denying something that is very real in South Carolina.”

Another Domestic Violence Treatment Shows Promise

An innovative therapy program in the Iowa Department of Corrections, Achieving Change Through Value Based Behavior, shows promising results in changing domestic violence offenders’ behavior and rates of re-offenses in the state. The program, created by University of Iowa associate professor of psychology Erika Lawrence, is now being sought in other states.

Every week for six months, offenders in the Iowa program attend a group therapy session facilitated by Community Treatment Coordinators Brian Moffatt and Elaine Bales. The group therapy session emphasizes the recognition of angry feelings and encourages the offenders to sit with them, suffer through them, and not act on them.

facilitators of domestic violence treatment groups in the offices of the Fifth Judicial District in Des Moines

Brian Moffatt and Elaine Bales, facilitators of domestic violence treatment groups in the offices of the Fifth Judicial District in Des Moines, sit Nov. 25 inside the room where group sessions with offenders take place. (Photo: Charlie Litchfield/The Register)

It’s a less confrontational treatment method compared to the state’s traditional approach that coaches the offenders to get rid of angry thoughts. An approach  Lawrence believes is not realistic.

Lawrence explains, “What we are saying is maybe you have those emotions, but you can still choose how to behave…You shouldn’t feel anger? Changing thoughts doesn’t work. But you can choose to change your reaction to them.” She continues, “A lot of what we do is slow down what is an automatic process. My wife is yelling at me, I get upset and it just happens. We take a step back and look at the emotions. When you get angry or anxious, you notice all that and take a moment to ask, ‘What are my options? What is important here?’ It might be their freedom, not going back to jail, or it might be their relationship.”

The meeting room at the Fifth Judicial District

The meeting room at the Fifth Judicial District where group sessions with domestic violence offenders take place is seen Nov. 25 in Des Moines.(Photo: Charlie Litchfield/The Register)

The program directly questions cultural norms of masculinity that deems violence as an appropriate response to anger. Another facilitator of the group, Karen Siler, clarifies, “When those things are challenged, it can be a direct cause of violence. We have a culture of violence against women and against people who are different…We have all these laws against it and all these punishments for these crimes, and it still happens. So what are we going to do?”

Moffatt was initially skeptical of the program but then he began to witness the change in the men.

Nick Ceretti, an offender in the program is an example of how the program is changing lives. Originally, Ceretti hated coming to the weekly sessions but by week seven, it clicked. Before the program, Ceretti said he wasn’t very good at expressing his feelings during an argument with his girlfriend and would turn to drugs and alcohol to solve the problem. Now he says he’s able to talk things out with her. “Every week I came home from class, I would talk about things with her,” Ceretti said to The Register. “She has way more respect for me. It came down to acting like a grown-up instead of like a child.”

Results of the program to date

  • Men in the program had lower rates of physical, psychological and sexual aggression at week 24 compared with men in cognitive behavioral therapy models used in Iowa for decades.
  • Men in the program had a lower rate of violent reoffenses one year after treatment or dropout (13.4 percent) than men in cognitive behavioral therapy (22.9 percent).

Ray Rice Wins Appeal Against the NFL

Ray Rice, Janay Rice

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, right, speaks alongside his wife, Janay, during a news conference. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend we learned that Ray Rice won his appeal against the NFL, reinstating him into the league with the eligibility to sign with any team. Rice won the appeal on a technicality. According to Article 46 of the NFL collective bargaining agreement, Rice is not allowed to be punished twice for the same incident. Since the NFL originally didn’t take the assault against his then-fiancée seriously, Rice has the possibility to continue to play football without any serious consequences. Devastating, but not at all surprising in a society that clearly values men’s careers instead of women’s lives. While many argue Rice is just a one time offender with a squeaky clean history, I am having a hard believing that beating your partner unconscious is a “mistake” that can be easily rectified.

On February 15th, Ray Rice and his then fiancée, Janay Palmer, were arrested and charged with simple assault-domestic violence after a “ minor physical altercation” that resulted in Palmer being dragged unconsciously off an elevator by Rice. Even though the police had retained the video of the “altercation” when Rice and Palmer were arrested, Rice was only charged with simple assault. How does beating someone unconscious equate to simple assault?

It wasn’t until TMZ released the infamous video of Rice beating Palmer on the elevator that Rice received serious charges for beating her unconsciously. Even with this evidence, his attorney has been on a crusade to downplay the entire incident as a lovers quarrel. With no explanation, Rice and Palmer pushed up their wedding and got married after Rice’s charges were upped to aggravated assault by a grand jury. A suspicious move that helped minimize the whole affair.

Domestic violence is not an issue to be taken lightly. Rice’s case should have served as an example to others that if you use violence as a means of communication, there will be severe and lasting consequences. It’s the least that can be done when a victim of violence has to live with that moment for the rest of their lives. Instead this case has become one of the many that clearly demonstrates the need for a cultural and systemic revolution regarding the fight against domestic violence.


For a complete timeline of the Ray Rice assault case, go here.