Domestic violence convictions rare under new law
July 03, 2015
Boston Herald by Matt Stout
A much-touted domestic violence law is falling short in the courts as defendants escape convictions in more than 70 percent of the cases closed under two newly created charges — assault and battery on a family member and strangulation or suffocation, a Herald review found.
The new charges added to the books were considered a key ingredient in tightening the state’s domestic violence laws in the wake of the murder case against Jared Remy, who wiggled out of domestic violence charges before killing his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel, in August 2013.
But a review of the data compiled by nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys and sent to state lawmakers this week shows:
• Between the law’s passing in August and the end of May, prosecutors scored a conviction in just 29 percent of the 4,000 cases they closed involving the assault of a family member. That came to more than 1,100 convictions;
• In charges of strangulation, DAs reported disposing of nearly 500 of the 1,050 cases or charges. But they earned a guilty plea, guilty verdict or admission to sufficient facts in just 141 of them, or 28 percent.
Wendy Murphy, a longtime attorney and advocate, said the conviction rates should be used to hold prosecutors
accountable on how they handle a widely unreported crime.
“Any prosecutor who doesn’t improve that data should be thrown out of office,” she said.
When passed, the new law was billed as “landmark,” particularly the first-of-its-kind charge around strangulation, which officials and advocates called a potential precursor to more violent — even homicidal — domestic disputes.
But while the statute remains a “helpful” tool, that “doesn’t mean we expected we were going to have high conviction rates,” said Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless.
“These are difficult cases to prosecute,” said Capeless, who is also vice president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, which compiled the data. “We are talking about a very vulnerable population of victims. Very often victims, for various reasons, report that they don’t want to go forward with these cases. I would tell you that the least likely reason (for no conviction) is that it didn’t happen. There’s a reason the charge was brought.”
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, whose office prosecuted Remy, came under fire for not moving to have him held on a charge of assaulting Martel a day before he murdered her. She was not available for comment yesterday.
A spokesman for Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo, who publicly led the push of the domestic violence bill, said House officials were still reviewing the data, which was submitted Tuesday.
Toni Troop, a spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc., called the DAs’ report an “important baseline,” but cautioned against drawing concrete conclusions, given there’s nothing to compare it to. The data also isn’t complete: Capeless and Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett have yet to submit results for their offices.
“There are 1,100 people who are being held accountable,” Troop said, referencing the conviction total under the new assault charge.
“That’s 1,100 victims of violence who hopefully found some justice.”
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