Domestic Violence Bills Languish on Judiciary Panel

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Members of Maryland's defense bar don't just go to court to guard the rights of clients accused of domestic violence. Some of their biggest victories come in Room 101 of the House Office Building in Annapolis, where many victims' rights bills go to die.

After a year of several domestic slayings in Maryland, the General Assembly rebuffed efforts to force abuse suspects to give up their guns, to lengthen the term of protective orders, to deny paternity rights to rape suspects and to create a felony offense for setting a person on fire.

Some of those bills sailed through the Senate. But they were killed or left in a legislative drawer in Room 101, where the House Judiciary Committee meets.

The Maryland House of Delegates' rejection of those and other measures meant to enhance victims' rights underscores the power of the defense lawyers who dominate the committee, one of the legislature's most influential.

As a result, some Maryland laws are less favorable to domestic violence victims than those in other states, including Virginia, and in the District, legal experts say.

In Maryland, when victims go to court seeking a protective order, the standard of proof required is the highest in the country, and the duration of the order is among the shortest. Judges cannot immediately order abuse suspects to surrender their guns when victims seek protection. Rapists whose victims have a child have parental rights.

Victim advocates say the House Judiciary Committee has blocked significant changes to the laws.

"The committee has an underlying distrust of victims," said Tracy Brown, executive director of the Women's Law Center of Maryland. "A concern that women are making up these stories to get a leg up in a divorce. Certainly that can happen, but it's far from the majority of cases."

Lawyers on the committee who also rebuffed efforts a decade ago to stiffen penalties for drunk drivers say that what might appear to be good for victims is often an attack on defendants' civil liberties. They see themselves as bulwarks against the impulse to rewrite laws in response to emotionally wrenching crimes.

"The committee does not embrace every fad that comes along," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), a defense lawyer on the panel.

The debate has continued in the past year, as a number of domestic killings in Maryland have received attention: Three Rockville children drowned in March during a custody dispute, and their father was charged in the deaths; a woman and three children were fatally shot in Damascus on Thanksgiving by the woman's ex-husband, who then shot and killed himself; and two Montgomery County children were hanged, apparently by their father, who then hanged himself.

The Judiciary Committee has been led since 1993 by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), a lawyer with a criminal defense practice in Suitland. Vallario, 71, is the legislature's longest-serving committee chairman. He rarely votes on the 22-member committee, which includes 15 lawyers, 10 of whom practice criminal law. Six members are women, and several are non-lawyers who favor gun rights.

Last year, Vallario outraged women's advocates at a hearing on a bill to deny paternity rights to rapists by invoking Lord Hale, a 17th-century English jurist who instructed juries to be suspicious of women's claims of rape.

In a recent interview, Vallario said his committee's approach to domestic violence issues has evolved dramatically, albeit gradually. He mentioned the passage this year of a bill allowing victims to seek a permanent protective order as long as the abuser has served at least five years in jail for a violent crime against the victim.

"In a lot of respects, we've made a lot of changes," Vallario said. "The committee has matured to recognize the difficulties of women in a domestic violence situation."

But, he added, "we are looking out for everybody."

Leading the House effort to strengthen protections for women is Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), a committee member and family court lawyer who describes the panel's work as a "constant battle between victims' rights and the defense bar." She called the House action to allow permanent protective orders, which will probably be signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) this month, "the surprise of the session."

Another measure, which would clarify police officers' authority to use force to return a minor child to a custodial parent when a final protective order takes effect, is also expected to become law.

Maryland's commitment to addressing violence against women has come a long way since protective orders were limited to 15 days and a woman could not bring rape charges against her husband. Many legislatures developed a sensitivity to domestic violence with the election of more female lawmakers and a series of high-profile crimes in the late 1980s. Maryland's General Assembly enacted several measures, including efforts to recognize abuse as a crime, to train police to take it seriously and to expand services for victims.

But as domestic violence persists -- claiming the lives of 52 women and children in Maryland last year among more than 22,000 reported crimes -- advocates continue to fight for broader protections that they say could save lives.

"I think there's a backlash in some instances where the committee's view is: 'We've given you all this legislation. Why do you keep coming back?' " said Michele Brown, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

When people seek protective orders in Maryland, they must prove "clear and convincing" evidence of abuse instead of a "preponderance of evidence," the standard used in the District and Virginia and other states.

That high bar led a Montgomery Circuit Court judge to deny a protective order to Amy Castillo to keep her estranged husband away from their children. The three children drowned in a Baltimore hotel room in March, and Mark Castillo was charged with three counts of first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death.

Dumais did not introduce her bill this year to establish a lower standard for protective orders after watching them crumble several years in a row. It would be a lost cause, she said.

In Maryland and the District, protective orders are limited to a year. In Maryland, they can be extended for six months; in the District, indefinitely. Orders in Virginia last two years, and in several states they can be permanent.

Vallario said that extending the term to the 24 months sought by advocates is unnecessary, because many estranged couples seek a divorce after a year. Advocates disagree, saying that it can take up to two years to complete divorce proceedings.

Judges in Maryland have the discretion -- but are not required -- to confiscate the guns of an abuse suspect once a final protective order has been issued, after the defendant has had an opportunity to appear in court. In some jurisdictions, only regulated handguns, not rifles, can be removed. The law is stricter in the District and in Virginia and many other states, which allow the court to take firearms when a temporary protective order is issued.

Victims' advocates consider the gun laws the most dangerous loopholes in Maryland's statute and launched a blitz this year to close them. Several bills backed by the governor cleared the Senate, but the House Judiciary Committee voted them down. One would have authorized judges to confiscate guns when they issue temporary orders.

"This is when the situation is most red-hot," said Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Prince George's). "It's a temporary taking. You didn't even see the NRA come out to testify against it."

The committee's gun rights advocates say someone accused of violence could be deprived of his weapons based on an accusation he has no opportunity to rebut.

"What if there's a shoving contest, and this guy has never said a threatening thing about the guns?" asked Del. Kevin Kelly (D-Allegany).

A hearing on the assault-by-burning bill was one of the most emotional of the legislative session, with Yvette Cade's story of how her estranged husband stormed into her workplace, threw gasoline on her and set her on fire. Weeks before the disfiguring 2005 attack, a Prince George's County judge had dismissed a temporary protective order that Cade had obtained against her husband.

Committee members said they were moved by Cade's testimony but struck down the bill, taking the view that Roger Hargrave's crime and others like it are addressed under state law. Hargrave is serving a life sentence for attempted first-degree murder.

The bill to deny a rape suspect's paternity rights was also shelved this year, despite having been unanimously passed by the Senate for the second straight year. Due process ruled the day: Unless a man has been convicted, a court should not deny him contact with his child.

Some victims' advocates say they are not taken seriously when they testify before the Judiciary Committee. At a hearing on a bill to require an abuse suspect to stay away from family pets, some lawmakers joked about whether protected animals should include chickens and farm animals.

"They're not realizing that the pet becomes part of the arsenal" of an abuser, said Cheryl R. Kravitz, a domestic violence survivor from Silver Spring who is co-chairman of the governor's Family Violence Council.

Years ago, Kravitz's ex-husband threatened to slit the throat of the family's beloved Lhasa apso, Benji. The dog was taken to a veterinary clinic when Kravitz left the home.

The committee rarely approves bills addressing animal cruelty, respecting the chairman's view that they are not serious measures.

Maine and Vermont have added pets to their domestic violence statutes, and several other states are weighing such laws.

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