It was the first time a federal judge had allowed a wife- beating case to go to trial in which the woman charged the police with violating her 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. She claimed the cops treated her calls for protection less seriously than other complaints not arising from "domestic disputes."
The result of this case is likely to change the training of police throughout the country in these matters. On June 25, a jury in Hartford, Conn., awarded 24-year-old Tracey Thurman $2.3 million in compensatory damages and found that 23 of present and former officers of the Torrington Police Department had indeed not given her equal protection under the law.
In addition to women's groups, insurance carriers for municipalities are intently studying the outcome and are beginning to question local police departments on how well they prepare their officers to deal with complaints of domestic violence. If the carriers are not satisfied, they will tell the municipalities to take their insurance business elsewhere, wherever that may be.
Tracey Thurman had charged that between October 1982 and June 1983, her estranged husband, Charles "Buck" Thurman, repeatedly threatened her life and the life of their 3-year-old son. He had also tried to enter her apartment and had attacked her while she was at the home of friends. When she called the police during those months, her complaints were often ignored or rejected. Sometimes the police did respond, she said, but were of little or no help. It is true that Charles Thurman was arrested twice, but the first time he was not prosecuted, and the second time he received a suspended sentence along with a warning to stay away from his wife.
On June 10, 1983, according to papers filed in court by her attorney, Burton Weinstein, Tracey Thurman was at the home of friends when her husband showed up and insisted on talking to her. She called the police, reminding them that he was violating the restraining order to keep away from her.
When the police had not come afer 15 minutes, Tracey Thurman went outside to speak to her husband. Ten minutes of conversation ended when he stabbed her repeatedly in the chest, neck and throat. Finally, 25 minutes after her call to the police station, an officer came, saw Charles Thurman holding a bloody knife, disarmed him, but did not arrest and handcuff him.
The officer did call an ambulance but in the meantime, the unhindered estranged husband kicked his wife in the head, neck and back, causing additional serious injuries. Some of those injuries, including partial paralysis, are now permanent.
Charles Thurman eventually was arrested for that assault and is serving a 15-year prison sentence; but it is Tracey Thurman's contention that the arrest was too late to protect her. And the lack of urgency shown by the Torrington police, she adds, is part of a pattern not only of negligence but also of discrimination against women in the way those police handle domestic violence.
The verdict in the case, Tracey Thurman v. City of Torrington, is being appealed; but the facts and the constitutional argument are so strong that the verdict is unlikely to be reversed. The city of Torrington had claimed in its defense, and still claims, that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment is limited to only the "minority classifications of race and religion." Accordingly, the implication is that women are not entitled to invoke a right to equal protection of the law. It is doubtful that even strict constructionist Edwin Meese would agree.
Gayle Brooks, director of the Connecticut Task Force on Abused Women and state coordinator of NOW told me that "those of us in the women's movement -- in all our groups -- could not have accomplished in our lifetimes what this $2.3 million verdict will do to protect women from domestic violence." Or, as Burton Weinstein puts its, "What decency could not persuade the police to do, economic necessity will compel them to do." Co-counsel in the case, Judith Mauzake, adds: "This is what I went to law school for -- to work on a case like this."
As for the inclination of police to take less urgent action against battering husbands than against violent strangers, a recent roundup of such cases in the Connecticut weekly paper, Fairpress, included a woman who, this spring, had called police to say her husband was beating her. The cops came to her home; she said she'd be right down; but she never appeared. The police, assuming the domestic argument had been settled, left without checking upstairs.
Soon after, the husband informed the authorities that his wife had been bludgeoned to death. By him.