My parents, just in from Florida, bore faces weary from travel and etched with worry. My sister was wary and staunch. My boss, with whom I’d exchanged terse messages that morning, was angry that I wasn’t coming to work, despite agreeing to it ten days before. With the blanket of tension wrapped around me, we waited in District Court for hours for my stalker’s bench trial. But at the last minute, he asked for a jury trial, so his case would be transferred to Circuit Court and his criminal defense attorney could better guess a sentence from judges he knew.
Three weeks later, in what was scheduled as a preliminary hearing in Circuit Court, my stalker pleaded guilty to avoid the harsh sentence a jury trial would yield. His attorney argued that his client “didn’t have the courage” to actually hurt me, admitted to having a drinking problem and had learned that he “needs to be more considerate in the future.” He also told the judge that his client had no violent prior convictions. I suppose badly beating a woman doesn’t count.
I gave what’s called a victim’s impact statement, and the Internal Affairs sergeant who sat in the back of the room told me later that he thought it would have made a difference if the state had not already agreed to a plea deal. I had okayed the deal because it would save us from worrying about the initial officer’s errors in a jury trial, and it would save my parents from listening to testimony.
Factoring in suspended time from the statute, my stalker was sentenced to 13 months, including time served, and four years probation. Because of his criminal history and the escalation of his behavior, the judge had added a year to the probation deal and sent him to a state prison instead of a county facility.
There is no Truth In Sentencing policy in my state, so I knew he would not serve the full time. The state and county were not obligated to tell me anything about his status. But a friend told me about a state-endorsed service that would monitor his incarceration and tell me if he was released. “I mean it,” he told me firmly. “Sign up.”
Two months after sentencing, the service sent an email. My stalker was out. They put him on home detention for five more months, living at his mother’s house with an ankle bracelet. His ten-year criminal history included a bevy of drug offenses, burglary charges and assault. It showed that while he was on house arrest for beating that woman, he was served with a protective order by another woman. From time to time, I checked his record. One day, I saw that his probation had been reduced from four years to one.
It hit me then. Because of a few connections and an understanding of whose office to approach about what, I had an advantage over so many other victims. I knew others might be intimidated by the idea of calling offices all over the state. I realized that not everyone can pick up and move when they deal with something like this. I realized that not everyone has the support, the friends, the family, the workplace security that I have. And I realized that if it had not been for one friend’s advice, I never would have known anything past the day my stalker pleaded guilty.
I realized how lucky I was. And I knew someone else would not be.
Six months after my stalker’s arrest, I sent an email about my case, and what I wanted for other victims, to two state senators and six state delegates. A few months later, one of the senators officially proposed a bill on my behalf that would tell victims of misdemeanor crimes about the service I used to monitor my stalker’s status. It was a simple plan: a line of copy on District Court letterhead, telling recipients of subpoenas, summonses and other documents about the service I used, to which their counterparts in the felony-oriented Circuit Court were automatically granted access.
I testified to a state senate committee in favor of the bill, a three-minute speech I had agonized over, trying to tell my story and explain why the bill mattered. I tried to drive home the point that most people like me never know anything about their perpetrator’s status after sentencing for a predatory crime. The proposal’s one-time cost of implementation was $5,760, not much more than it had cost me to move. The bill had great support and no opposition.
But it stalled in committee for political reasons. There would be no new law.
The senator’s chief of staff sounded so frustrated on the phone. He said he had gone from such a high to such a low that he was thinking about finding different work. But we didn’t give up. We planned for the next year’s legislative session, and kept trying to make something happen without legislation in the meantime. Several weeks after my testimony to the committee, the senator’s chief of staff called to say that a state agency for crime control had found room for the cost of our initiative in a federal grant. Because it was a one-time expense, there was no risk of undoing our work for lack of funding. The purpose of the bill had been served, in spite of those who stood in its way out of selfishness.
Jack had once said to me, “I tend to think everything happens for a reason. But I can’t think of a reason this happened to you.” I told him that I don’t believe the same thing, but I do think we can make something good come out of a bad situation.
And we had.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series. The final part will be posted tomorrow.