The tragedy last week in Kansas City got us looking through the vaults. Here goes one. This is especially relevant now that Chris Brown and Rihanna have patched up their relationship for a minute. Check it out:
Domestic Violence: A Lawyer’s Notes
from Brian Gilmore
Watching the Chris Brown-Rihanna fiasco continue to unfold, I am remembering my days as a lawyer at a local DC law firm where on more than one occasion, I was a lawyer in domestic violence cases. These cases are not my most enjoyable moments as a lawyer but the experience did afford me the unique perspective of working both sides of a domestic violence tragedy: the victim and the perpetrator.
It is important to point out at the beginning that the fact that it is now rumored that Chris Brown and Rihanna are back together is not strange to me; this is typical. I also resist calling Rihanna an “idiot” as some have done already or calling her “foolish” for her alleged decision to accept Brown back into her life. If Rihanna had walked away forever, or if Brown had issued a public apology announcing he was wrong and that he would not approach her ever again, I would have fainted. Domestic violence, and the reasons behind the incidents, and the destructive relationships, is very complex, and needless to say, awfully difficult to understand.
In fact, the fact that Brown was communicating readily with Rihanna almost right away tells me that one critical component was already absent from the case: no stay away order was probably ever entered in the case. This was Rihanna’s first mistake and perhaps a mistake by the authorities as well who should have issued one anyway until they understood what was happening. The stay away order would have let Brown know this is over and this is serious.
Working domestic violence cases is among the most difficult things I have done as a lawyer. This is because ethical obligations rule the day and not your personal feelings about domestic abuse. Domestic violence in America is epidemic and it is especially horrific in the black community. Most of the cases I had involved men attacking women so I won’t engage in fantasy. The issue is further impacted in Black America due to poverty and dysfunctional family arrangements. In other words, the problem is worse than most of us are willing to admit.
If you don’t believe it: take a visit to the D.C. Superior Court to the domestic violence daily courtrooms or to the courtrooms set aside for domestic violence in most major cities. It is disturbing the number of cases that are handled each day. Even more disturbing (from a personal standpoint) is that most of the cases where I stood in for the accused, nothing ever happens. The accused gets a slap on the wrist, if that, and the victim goes home sometimes hoping to get back with the accused quickly.
In D.C., domestic violence is assembly line litigation. There are so many cases, the court has set up a system where the accused can agree to the CPO ( a stay away order) and no hearing is held. You can be out of the courthouse in a few hours with that one. The parties consent to a stay away order and all is well again. The judge will read the consent order and then the clerk will announce the next case.
The consent order will reflect the fact that there is no admission of any wrongdoing. The accused must stay away from the victim for one year. This, on many occasions, does not happen.
Sometimes, the accused and the victim have already starting talking again by voice mail, text messages, or through other people. They might be “back together” by the afternoon following the court hearing.
Sometimes the victim, the half careful victims, despite impending reconciliation, get the stay away order anyway just in case their significant other gets violent again. They can then invoke the order and get the person away from them quickly. The really careful people get the order and also insist upon a hearing to put the violence on record.
As for the accused, most of the accused take the consent order without admissions quickly if they can get it. It keeps the evidence of their foul behavior off the record and it might allow them to resume their relationship anew. I suspect that Chris Brown would love it if Rihanna never actually goes on record about anything. If she doesn’t say anything, there isn’t anything except tabloid reports and rumor.
On the other side, representing victims is not easy as well. While it is not necessary usually for a victim to have a lawyer, sometimes they do need one especially if the accused has a lawyer. But the major problem here is usually by the time the case arrives into court, the accused and the victim are cozy again.
In fact, you might file the case or the victim might file the case, and then the accused, receiving the paperwork, will spring into action.
Somehow, they will open the lines of communication again. They might open the lines before the papers calling for them to appear in court to answer the charges are served. Usually, the initial allegations will also include a temporary stay away order that lasts about 2 weeks.
Once the accused receives this order they cannot call the victim but perhaps one of the victim’s friends will call, or a friend of them both, someone might be available to get the couple talking again. This happens all the time and sometimes it is the victim’s parents who feel that the accused, their significant other, is a good person. It doesn’t help that the parents know the accused well.
And this is where the difficulty begins for the lawyer.
The victim, despite the pain and suffering, feels hurt and dumped. They want to reconcile on many occasions. People are telling them not to pursue the case; others are telling them to go all the way. Have a hearing, make a record, show the world what a rat he really is. They are, therefore, torn and a part of them does not want to cooperate while another part wants to make the person pay.
My most difficult task as a lawyer was always to try to get them to follow through all the way and pursue their complaint. Usually, the accused would ask for a continuance to locate counsel. This would buy them time to work behind the scenes.
I hated this part of the cases because to represent a victim is always much more satisfying than representing someone who actually engaged in violent conduct against another. In fact, some of the accused abusers I assisted, were, in my view, individuals who lacked any redeeming qualities.
The court would enter the continuance and would also keep the temporary stay away order in place. The accused could not call the victim or even contact them through anyone. But that didn’t stop the games from beginning, very dangerous games.
The next two weeks would be simply about people putting pressure behind the scenes on the victim to not appear in court in two weeks and let the complaint go away quietly. If you don’t appear, the case will die. I have seen men mumble in the hallways letting their former lovers see them hurting (allegedly hurting) for the pain they have afflicted. It is one of many clever moves that men use at the courthouse to stop the wheels of justice. Imagine, the perpetrator seeking sympathy. They probably should seek counseling and treatment for deep seated problems.
But still it would play out. The victim would be told: it was all a mistake. The person didn’t mean it. You don’t want to cooperate; they might throw them in jail and what would happen then. If there are children this is even more complex because the argument is made that the children would lose their father and would also lose any chance at child support if the person was incarcerated.
This, I admit, would be tough but in most cases, it is better to be alone and poor than remain in an abusive, destructive relationship. Children are hardly a reason to go soft on an abuser.
As a lawyer, I would call the victim, my client, every few days and remind them of the court date, and ask them if anyone has tried to get you not to appear. Of course, they would almost always say: “no.” Of course, I knew this was not the case. I would urge them to go all the way.
And days later, in court, when they did not appear, I knew what had happened. Friends and family members had intervened or they had simply decided to forgive the person and let it go. I grew tired of it.
Regardless, I don’t know how many times I have had to advise the court that the victim, my client could not be located and would not appear. On occasion, I was cursed out by associates or parents of clients because I insisted that they come to court. They clearly did not get it. The case would be dismissed and everyone would get back to their lives.
Of course, weeks later, or a year later, the victim would call again and tell me that they had been beaten again, and this time they will go all the way and the cycle would start again. I wish I could tell you that they would go through with the hearings and appear. On occasion, the second incident reported was enough and the woman would ask for a full hearing or at least for the court to enter a stay away order.
Or on the other side, an accused would call because another stay away order had been issued against them. It would be the same person or if you know the system like I know it, it would be your client, the serial batterer, who had beaten a different woman this time, and this time the government wanted to prosecute.
I would refer them to a criminal defense attorney.
Those were the moments that caused me to stop doing domestic violence cases (on both sides). Too many lives lost, too much I could not control, too much drama for this lawyer to understand.
Of course, the Chris Brown-Rihanna saga, like any domestic violence situation, will play out in its own unique way. It is hoped that it does not end like these cases usually end.
Brian Gilmore, a poet and a lawyer,