THEY READ LORETTA MARSHALL her rights twice in the early-morning hours as her boyfriend lay dying. Once as she sat in the squad car outside her apartment on 13th Street NW when she was charged with assaulting him with a knife, and once again as she sat in the same car, a couple of hours later. She asked the cop why he was reading her her rights again and he told her that this time it was for homicide. "What's that?" she asked, and he answered "murder." For Adolphus Thompson and Loretta Pasley Marshall, a terrifying cycle of love and abuse had ended.
This time Loretta Marshall had defended herself.
Sixteen difficult months have passed since that night, but on April 24 a jury cleared her of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. She has emerged with an understanding of spouse abuse and a desire to help other women who are caught in such relationships. And while her story shows the growing understanding on the part of lawyers and police of such relationships, it also underlines the complexities of the problem and the powerlessness of outsiders to help such a couple. And it raises troubling questions about whether we have struck the right balance between a family's privacy and freedom from third-party interference and peoples' safety.
Marshall is 27, a graduate of McKinely High School and the mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She was married for five years and used to work for a doctor who treated drug addicts. Thompson, who worked as a driver for a computer company, and she were together for a couple of years, in a relationship that she says started off well and then deteriorated.
"His mother talked to us," she says. "My mother talked to us. You have to live it to understand it. His mother said we should stop fighting because someone was going to wind up seriously hurt. Friends told us we should go our own ways because someone would wind up hurt. But every time we'd get into an argument and I would leave," Thompson would promise that things would be different. She loved him and wanted to believe him.
In the nine months before the fatal knifing, police were called to Marshall's home 13 times. The record of her telephone calls to the 9ll emergency police number covers a detailed computer printout that was subpoenaed into evidence during her trail. The idea for that came from James Cooke, a young man who was originally trained as a social worker and who is now in the Antioch clinical law program. Marshall's court-appointed lawyer, Peter Dingman of Alexandria, credits Cooke with providing considerable assistance in Marshall's defense. Cooke obtained the computer printout and wrote to some 40 police officers who had responded to Marshall's emergency phone calls. Some had the most minimal contact with the couple. But four of them had enough knowledge of the situation to testify for the defense.
"There is a lot of support out there," says Cooke. He mentions shelters for abused women such as My Sister's Place and the House of Ruth, where he got information about the battered spouse syndrome. "There is support out there from the police department. It's so difficult to deal with. One of the reasons they came forward was the frustration with dealing with the problem."
Loretta Marshall says she stayed with Thompson because of the good times, and she doesn't know what, if anything, could have prevented the tragedy. "Adolphus was two people," she says. "He was a loving man and a treacherous man." She did not see herself as an abused woman although he beat her. "I didn't know about homes for battered and abused women," she says. "I don't know if I would go to one anyway." One of the last calls to show up on the computer printout tells of a neighbor who called police because Thompson was hitting Marshall. That neighbor, a serviceman who was subsequently transferred, was located by Cooke and testified in Marshall's defense.
The fact that Marshall called the police so many times and that her calls were recorded strengthened her case for self-defense. But it also illustrates the helplessness of third parties such as police. Marshall says that generally police will escort the person out whose name is not on the lease, make sure no one is hurt and then leave. Only once did Marshall have Thompson arrested and then she didn't press charges. As the computerized evidence of a family in serious trouble was mounting, there was no one who could effectively intervene. There are, as Cooke says, pointing to the printout of the emergency calls, "ethical considerations about what we do with information like this, but I think it's time to begin discussing what can be done.
"The social system may be sophisticated in terms of research techniques, but it's stil not sophisticated enough to get to the problem before this terrible incident. Had some social agency known that there was this ongoing abuse in this family and that 10 percent of [the police department's] District Four had been called in over nine months to interact with this couple, then maybe something could have been done to sort of help relieve the pressure," he says.
But the way the legal and social system works now, there was cycle there that had only one ending.