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In Harm’s Way

How legal barriers are putting domestic violence victims in more danger

By Hannah McCartney · August 28th, 2013 · News
news1_brokengavelIllustration: Ashley Kroninger

Andrea Metil had never heard of Columbus resident Shasta Pickens before this July, and she certainly had no idea an Ohio Supreme Court case in which Pickens was involved would change her life. 

In fact, Pickens and Metil share quite a few similarities, although they’ve never met. 

So, too, does Alisha Waters Mathis of Fort Thomas, Ky., now left paraplegic after her estranged husband shot her five times the morning of Aug. 6 before taking his own life. 

Each woman has been a victim of domestic violence, each woman sought out psychological and physical asylum in the legal system and it has failed each woman in its own way. 

The state of Ohio has made some significant strides over the past few years implementing more regulations to protect victims of domestic violence, but there are still serious loopholes in state law that sometimes put victims in harm’s way when the law is all they have. 

In particular, the laws surrounding civil protection orders have victims like Metil wondering if her situation and those similar to hers could have been completely avoided. On Aug. 22, Metil was at the helm of a press conference at downtown’s YWCA, where she spoke publicly for the first time about her experience as a domestic abuse victim attempting to navigate the legal system. 

Metil, 29, is a Hamilton County resident who in July found herself without recourse when a judge dismissed a criminal case against her husband for violating a protection order she filed against him in February, based on how a court interpreted Pickens’ case against her violent ex-boyfriend in April. 

Without warning, Metil says her husband of six months, Edward Camp, became abusive one day in January 2013 — that’s when she left without her car or belongings and reported him to the police. In the months following, he evaded being officially served the protection order issued against him by fleeing the state and continued to threaten Metil through emails, calls and texts. She assumed this would be pursued as a violation of his protection order, which she says he clearly knew about. 

However, a Hamilton County judged in July dismissed the violation case, citing an under-the-radar Supreme Court ruling State v. Smith, issued April 30, which states that to sustain a conviction for violation of a protection order under Ohio law, the state is required to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was officially “served” with the order before the violation. 

The defendant, “Smith,” refers to Robert Smith, Pickens’ ex-boyfriend. When their relationship ended on “rocky terms,” according to a court document, Pickens filed a petition with the Franklin County of Court of Common Pleas for an ex parte protection order against Smith; it was granted by a judge on April 12, 2010. When Smith broke into her home and attempted to strangle her days later, he was originally charged with domestic violence and violating his protection order.

However, the Supreme Court later sided with Smith when he appealed his conviction for violating a protection order; a sheriff’s office hadn’t officially served Smith with his protection order, although Pickens testified she showed him a copy of the order in person. 

The court majority ruled that the state hadn’t proven that Smith “recklessly” disregarded the protection order because there wasn’t concrete evidence he’d been properly “served” the protection order before the incident. 

Under Ohio law, civil protection orders can typically only officially be served by a sheriff’s deputy in person, says attorney Mike Smalz of the Ohio Poverty Law Center. The law specifies that deputies must attempt service on the same day the court issues the protection order, although Smalz says it often takes days between the time a court grants the order and a deputy first attempts service. That depends on several factors, including how quickly paperwork comes through and what time of day the court grants the order.

Smalz also cites a portion of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Rules of Civil Procedure that says orders can be served through certified mail, which could be a contention in someday reversing the State v. Smith ruling; that didn’t go into effect until July 2012, after Smith had already committed the alleged violation. 

“I feel like there’s a pretty obvious loophole in our current policy and it’s failing to protect people from domestic violence,” Metil says. “A lot of this has to do with semantics and language, but the end result is that women are failing to be protected.” 

Now, Metil is publicly asking legislators to change the language in the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) to lessen the burden of proof for victims and rethink the way “serving” a protection order is defined and executed. 

Nancy Neylon, executive director with the Ohio Domestic Violence Network (ODVN), believes that although the state has done a pretty good job of amending its laws, domestic violence is an issue that requires a constantly evolving approach from the legal system, victims and advocates. 

“When original protection order legislation was drafted, people just weren’t precise enough,” Neylon says. “The language talks about delivery, but it does not define what delivery means. The statute specifically says, ‘the protection order shall be delivered to the respondent.’ And what does delivered mean? If you look at the definition of delivery and define that as service, service is a word that is hard to define under that statute.” 

She says ODVN is working on drafting a proposal that would allow offenders to be officially “served” protection orders with a paper notice if deputies’ attempts to notify defendants in person are unsuccessful. In Pickens’ and Metil’s case, that would have been the only legal buffer necessary in more severely penalizing two violent men who now have taken no responsibility for violating court-issued protection orders. 

When Dennis Mathis recently shot his estranged wife, Alisha Waters Mathis, five times just outside her workplace in Northern Kentucky, it was months after Alisha had found herself caught in a struggle similar to that of Pickens and Metil; she’d sought out a protection order against Dennis in April after she received a slew of threatening texts messages, citing in her application that she was “in fear for the safety of myself and my two dogs,” according to Kenton County court records obtained by CityBeat. 

A judge dismissed her request because it didn’t include actual allegations of domestic abuse; without that on record, there was nothing suspicious about Dennis Mathis purchasing a 9mm handgun the morning of the shooting, when he passed a background check and lied about his mental health, according to a Change.org petition created by Alisha’s uncle, Edwin Scudder. The petition asks the Kentucky legislature to lower the burden of proof for victims seeking protection orders, allowing cyber-stalking to serve as evidence of psychological abuse and the threat of possible physical abuse. 

That’s just one factor in a comprehensive equation to more effectively protect domestic violence victims and punish abusers, says Neylon. 

Ohio House Bill 160, introduced in May, would require individuals served with temporary protection orders to surrender their firearms; federal law already mandates that, when served final protection orders, abusers cannot buy, own or have guns in their possession. 

Neylon says that ODVN is also currently working on introducing legislation that would increase the penalties for attempted strangulation in domestic violence incidences, which she says they’ve found to commonly precede domestic violence homicides. 

“It really is much more serious than a push or a shove, so how can we address that differently within our criminal justice system?” she says.

ODVN is also at the helm of House Bill 243, which, if approved, would include the protection of pets under several different forms of protection orders.  

“One of the things we know is that the abuse of pets is a huge risk factor for victims who are trying to get out of the situation, sometimes who don’t leave the situation because they have pets that they’re afraid to leave behind because the abusers will kill or hurt or harm them,” Neylon says. 

Neylon and Metil agree that some instances of domestic violence simply can’t be predicted or avoided, but that victim safety and well-being should be the main priority in amending and enforcing laws. 

“I made the decision to discuss this publicly because I felt like I had a responsibility to,” Metil says. “I know that a lot of women in circumstances similar to mine might not have the ability or the strength to fight this, and I do. I mean, it’s uncomfortable and it’s inconvenient and it’s difficult, but I know that I’m doing the right thing in trying to change the policy.” ©

 
 
 
 

 

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