Steady stream of domestic cases tries Dot courthouse

A teen accused of beating his girlfriend over a period of six hours. A nephew charged with allegedly throwing a window fan at his uncle. Another man stood accused of coming at his girlfriend with a machete.

These are just a few of the domestic violence cases that have crossed before a judge in Dorchester District Court's first floor courtroom recently. At one time they would have gone to a courtroom on the second floor, specifically set aside for such cases. Now, they are lumped in with the rest of the previous nights' arrests.

Federal funds for the special courtroom, part of a pilot project, dried up last year, nearly six years after then-Attorney General Janet Reno made an appearance here to hand over funds and a gavel to presiding Judge Sydney Hanlon. The program was also piloted in Washtenaw County in Michigan and Milwaukee County in Wisconsin. In Dorchester, the unit was phased out in June.

But some are saying the domestic violence pilot was a success.

"One could say all violent crimes are heinous," said defense attorney Lauren Craig Redmond. But domestic violence cases have a "specific heinousness" because they occur inside a home, she said. "When you go home and fix dinner…and he starts whaling on you, that's worse because of the trust that's been broken."

Usually, the woman has no resources to get out of the situation, unlike a person getting held up at the local fast food restaurant being able to avoid the restaurant, she noted.

Defense attorneys often note that the state's domestic violence statute is one of the most abused, with police officers having to automatically arrest the suspect and no bail set. But others note that there are always some women - and some men too - who don't always report for a myriad of reasons.

"It's a crime we see constantly," says defense attorney Joseph Feeney, who has practiced criminal defense for the last five years, and family law for the last nine years before that. Cases range from a simple argument to a violent offense, between boyfriends and girlfriends, siblings, parents and children, he said.

A separate court makes it easier to weed the false cases out, some note. A smaller courtroom, away from the amphitheater of the first session, also makes a difference, they say, with better lighting and soundproofing. When the separate courtroom existed, it was situated right next to the victims' advocates' offices. ("They work the hardest," Feeney said, as in the first to arrive in the morning, and the last to leave.)

The program also had at least one or two district attorneys dedicated to it, according to Redmond. "To me, that was a good thing," she said.

Judge Hanlon, who still has the gavel Reno gave her sitting on a shelf in her office, along with piles of paper documentation and a DVD made about the program, said that while the program is gone, the court has kept its most important and successful part: the reviews.

Under the program, offenders would be brought back into court even if they were in compliance, thirty days after getting placed on probation, then 90 days after that, and 120 days after that. The move added clout to the probation officer's enforcement and helped keep them enrolled in batterers prevention programs, Hanlon said.

The program allowed for the more violent offenders to get winnowed out, she said, and also set in relief others with issues, such as substance abuse, mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

The court now does the 30 and 90 day reviews, having also suffered a reduction in probation staff, she said.

"I don't think we need a whole court," said Hanlon, pointing to other resources in the Dorchester community, including health centers, victims' services and batterers intervention programs. "We don't have the level of cases to justify that."