September 30, 2013

Maine prosecutor, attorney clash on domestic violence issue

District Attorney Maeghan Maloney draws fire for her tough policy pursuing domestic violence cases.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - In August, Corey W. Hall, charged with domestic violence assault and obstructing the report of a crime, appeared in court represented by Darrick Banda.

click image to enlarge

Maeghan Maloney, left, and Darrick Banda, right.

Authorities said Hall, 29, of Oakland, shoved Nicole Isbell, 21, to the ground in March, which led to the charges.

Yet Isbell didn't show up at his trial, defying a subpoena.

After Hall's case was dismissed by a judge, Isbell spent a weekend in jail. Ignoring the subpoena violated conditions of a suspended sentence she got on a theft conviction.

"Good job hunny," Hall commented on an online version of a Kennebec Journal story about Isbell's jailing. "Now we can get married!!!!!! :)"

That result stuck with District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, whose office prosecuted Hall.

Maloney counts it and a change in office policy as reasons that she made the most scrutinized move since she took office: jailing Jessica Ruiz, an alleged domestic violence victim who never missed a court date but made prosecutors worry she wouldn't testify at the trial of her accused abuser.

But defense attorney Banda, who says he may run against Maloney next year, said comparing that case to Hall's is a "fallacious argument."

"You can't assume that this woman is going to act the same way as a different person in a different case," he said.

It's not the first time Banda and Maloney have been on different sides of the tricky issue of prosecuting domestic violence.

Maloney beat Banda in the district attorney's race last November after pledging zero tolerance on domestic violence.

In a debate before the election, Maloney, a former Democratic state legislator, and Banda, a Republican defense lawyer, wrangled over the idea.

Maloney advocated prosecuting domestic violence cases if the office believes a crime has been committed, even if the victim doesn't want the case to go forward.

Banda said that policy could invite acquittals. If the office forgoes a plea deal early in a case, he said that with time, domestic violence victims may struggle with conflicting feelings about their alleged abuser and could refuse to testify, jeopardizing the case.

WHAT'S ZERO TOLERANCE?

Maloney, who took office in January, said the district attorney's domestic violence policy is to not drop cases when there is a dangerous mix of factors, including severe injury to a victim, hospitalization, threats to kill a victim, strangulation and a defendant with many encounters with police.

But it isn't totally inflexible, she said.

"There are times when a misdemeanor domestic assault happens where we can't try the case without the victim and if the case does not have a high lethality rating, we're not going to force the victim to testify," Maloney said last week.

Domestic violence policy marked her campaign for district attorney of Kennebec and Somerset counties, in the midst of a wave of increased public awareness of the issue. In 2012, 10 of Maine's 23 homicides were domestic violence-related. In 2010 and 2011, 21 of 48 homicides were linked to it.

Maloney's policy isn't the no-drop policy many prosecutors nationwide have, under which domestic violence cases won't be dropped once brought. Maloney calls hers a "soft-drop" policy.

In the 2012 debate, Maloney said as an assistant district attorney in Oregon's Multnomah County, she saw a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence work. She worked there from 1998 to 2000 in the trial and civil forfeiture units.

On Wednesday, Maloney said she had mixed feelings on the policy. She said while it helped that the community knew all cases would be tried, "there were cases when I felt like I knew the jury was wondering why we were going forward with it" for lack of proof.

(Continued on page 2)

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