The killing of a daughter, a girlfriend and her son by a man who police say was laying in wait for his wife is just one high-profile incidence of domestic violence in a region that is seeing a troubling increase. In the two-month span ending July 9, eastern North Carolina was the home to 11 lethal cases of domestic violence. While newspapers have reported on each crime locally, no attention has been brought to the sheer number of homicides in such a brief time. The question becomes, what are we doing wrong to have so much blood on our hands?Advocates blame the problem on district attorneys unwilling to prosecute offenders without the cooperation of the victim. They point to Pitt County, where the number of domestic violence murders has declined, as an example of the way it should be done: Cases are investigated and prosecuted whether the victims want to cooperate or not.
Advocates complain that's not the way Orange/Chatham District Attorney Carl Fox handled incidents that apparently led up to the recent triple murder, and the way he handles domestic violence cases in general. They say he does not press misdemeanor domestic violence offenses as often as possible.
"Most batterers are given probation, so they're not even seeing the inside of a jail," said Marie French, training specialist for the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "You're going to not give them jail time because they might come out angry and commit more acts of violence? They're already committing acts of violence while they're not in jail."
The coalition is organizing rallies across the state at noon on July 25, including one at the Legislative Building in Raleigh and another at Orange County Courthouse on Margaret Lane in Hillsborough (see list below).
"Domestic violence advocates are not going to be silent while 11 women die over two months," said French. "We're going to be their voices, and they're going to be heard--they will not die in vain."
In the Orange County deaths, Alan Douglas Gates is accused of killing his daughter, Valerie Michelle Gates; her girlfriend, Cordae Shimera Lee; and her friend's son, Kendall Alexander Dianis. Fox is being criticized for not pressing further charges in Gates' 15-year, three-restraining-order history. Well known for not pressing charges against domestic violence offenders without the victim's full cooperation, Fox did not pursue the case against Gates when he was charged with assaulting Valerie and a sheriff's deputy in April 1999 after Valerie did not appear on the court date and a judge threw the case out.
Fox says his hands are tied when the victim does not cooperate.
"If the victim is standing up and saying, 'No, I don't want him to go to prison,' you have a problem," Fox said. "In cases where the person is tried with a misdemeanor, the person is going to be locked up for 150 days maximum. ... You have to understand that jail time, while it does punish, sometimes aggravates the situation."
But elsewhere in the state, police departments and sheriff's offices are teaming up with DAs to prosecute batterers to the full extent of the law, even without the victim's consent.
Sgt. John Guard of the Pitt County Sheriff's Office Domestic Violence Prevention Unit is considered an expert in handling domestic violence at the policing level in North Carolina. Trained at national programs, Guard offers training services in handling domestic violence to police officers statewide. (The next training session is Aug. 22. Contact Leigh Place at (252) 830-4157 for details.)
Able to see the effects firsthand, Guard is one of the state's leading proponents of trying so-called "evidence based" cases in which the victim does not have to seek charges for the DA to bring their case to court.
Guard's hard work and organization has paid off. The year before he was brought in, Pitt County had four domestic violence homicides; in the six years he has been there, the county has suffered only two such murders.
Guard feels strongly that domestic violence evolves, and says that stopping it when it starts is essential in creating a healthy environment in the home. He understands that victims are often unwilling to testify against their batterers, fearing repercussions--so he builds evidence for cases that do not need the victim's testimony to get through the courts.
"We don't even ask if she'll press charges until we can't make a case without her," he said.
When he and his officers get to the scene of a disturbance, they collect any evidence that would provide probable cause to issue an arrest warrant for an assault. They survey the house, taking Polaroid pictures of any visible disturbances in the rooms (i.e. a microwave on the kitchen floor, glass from a kicked-in oven window, or all of "her" stuff knocked over), and take statements from the husband, wife, child or anyone within earshot.
"Our policy is, if we have probable cause, we shall arrest, not we might arrest," Guard says.
That evidence is what will put the batterer in jail or a proper counseling program, and keep him (as the offender is typically a male) from abusing his wife or family further.
One of Guard's officers meets weekly with the local DA to ensure that evidence is in order, and to arrange subpoenas for anyone needed in upcoming trials.
Despite the success of Pitt County's program and similar programs nationwide, Fox insists that a trial without the victim's express consent is not a viable option for Orange County.
"I don't know if these cases [without support from the victim] would hold up in Superior Court," said Fox. "I seriously doubt it."
Advocates say evidence-based prosecution works--and that it might have saved the lives of three people in Orange County, and eight others across the state.
Here's a list of the memorial events for domestic homicide victims being held in and around the Triangle. All events are on July 25 at noon.
Raleigh: Legislative building. Speaker: N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Graham: Alamance County Courthouse. Event: Circle of Hope.
Warrenton: Warren County Courthouse. Event: Mock domestic violence trial.
Hillsborough: Orange County Courthouse. Speaker: Barry Bryant, Governor's Crime Commission and the Rev. Jenny Knoop.
Durham: Wal-Mart at 5450 New Hope Commons Dr. Event: Poster display.
For more information, contact the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence at (919) 956-9124 or go to their Web site at www.nccadv.org.