Family violence court now in session

Published Jan. 3, 1996|Updated Sept. 15, 2005

The woman with the little hearts all over her shirt didn't know what to do. She had spent the first night of 1996 in the Pinellas County Jail, and now a judge was asking her whether she wanted to plead guilty to her charge.

She started to cry. Yes, she said, she did hit the daughter of her female roommate, but she had a good reason. The girl was using drugs.

"I did smack her in the mouth because she had a joint," the woman explained Tuesday morning. "She said she would have me arrested and then she could do whatever she wanted."

"There is no need to be smacking people in the mouth," County Judge Walter Fullerton told the woman.

So began the first-ever session of Pinellas County's new domestic violence court, one of only three in the state.

Until now cases involving domestic violence have gone to about 20 judges. Victims requesting a court-ordered injunction against further violence had to go to one of the family law judges. Anyone violating such an injunction faced a contempt charge in front of a circuit criminal judge. And people charged with battery and stalking landed in either circuit or county criminal court.

"There was no uniformity," said Fullerton, 45, of St. Petersburg. "It all depended on which judge you got."

Fullerton cited one case in which a woman sought an injunction ordering her husband out of the house, and the next day the man went to a different judge and got an injunction ordering the woman out.

Different judges had different approaches to resolving cases involving domestic violence, said Linda Osmundson, executive director of CASA, a St. Petersburg women's shelter.

"Some are more informed on the issues of domestic violence than others," she said.

Now one judge, Fullerton, will handle everything except felony domestic violence charges. That means he will review the requests for injunctions. If there is a violation he will see that as well. And if the abuser stalks or beats the victim, Fullerton would be the judge to preside over that criminal case.

Osmundson praised the change instituted by Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer. She noted that Fullerton _ now marking his eighth year on the bench _ had volunteered for the assignment, showing his interest in making the new system work. And in designing the court's procedures, Fullerton had consulted her and other advocates for the abused.

Osmundson also praised State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who in August created a separate division of five prosecutors to handle domestic violence cases. Since then, she said, she has noted a more aggressive approach in prosecuting those cases.

So far the public defender's office has not set up a similar unit because of problems with what the law allows it to do, said Public Defender Robert Jagger. "It seems like we're not a part of the process," he said.

At this point nobody knows how many cases the new division will end up handling, but it will undoubtedly run in the thousands. Criminal domestic violence cases totaled about 7,000 last year, according to prosecutors. And in the past year civil court judges handled about 3,500 injunctions, said Circuit Judge John Lenderman, the family law administrator.

Fullerton's cases began with those arrested on the first day of the new year. Four of the defendants who faced him were women _ one of them the wife of one of the eight male defendants. They came from everywhere in the county, from Tarpon Springs to St. Pete Beach. Most were charged with attacking their spouses, girlfriends or boyfriends, although one man hit his mother-in-law.

In each case Don Gibson, the lead trial attorney in the special prosecutors' division, outlined the defendant's prior arrests, if any, and suggested a sentence if the defendant would enter a plea of guilty or no contest. Each recommended sentence included a year's probation and a requirement for family violence counseling. Most included an order to have no further contact with the victim.

Assistant Public Defenders Sean Scott and Michael Hays spoke up for two defendants, but most faced the judge with no attorney and no prior experience with the legal system. "I'm just so nervous," one man confessed.

Eight of the 12 defendants took the deal offered by the state, pleading no contest to their charges _ including the woman who led off the day's cases.

"I can't have any more of this fighting, do you understand that?" the judge told her. She said yes.