Violence victims remembered

Published 5:54 pm Wednesday, October 8, 2003

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
MARCELLUS -- As a prosecutor for 20 years, Cass County Prosecuting Attorney Victor Fitz has been responsible for handling hundreds, if not thousands, of domestic violence cases.
Looking out Tuesday night over a thicket of yellow glow sticks held by more than 75 people who attended the annual candlelight vigil sponsored by his office, the Cass County Family Violence Task Force, the Domestic Assault Shelter Coalition and the Cass County Youth Committee at Marcellus United Methodist Church to remember victims and to celebrate survivors, three cases came to mind.
Janice was a loving parent and a responsible nurse. "Her reward for all that hard work and for being a faithful wife for all those years" was the knife that pierced her heart. "Her husband killed her in the middle of the night in the home." Tragically for him, but fortunately for justice, her 3-year-old grandson testified to what happened.
Fitz was also reminded of a young woman who decided to extract herself from an abusive relationship. "The man wouldn't let go and didn't understand that he needed to leave her alone. He came back one night with a knife and struck her 50 to 60 times. Then, adding insult to injury, he used a hot iron to brand her body while she lay there dying.
That relentless procession of mounting casualties which takes longer and longer to read each year can force frustration to flare.
That's where one of those slick jingles that lodge in memories could remind of gains made in fighting family violence.
Virginia Slims' cigarette slogan is no longer politically correct, but "You've come a long way, baby, to get where you've got to today."
Fitz remembered reading a "manual for men" article published in the 1960s. "How to treat your wife and girlfriend. I remember reading with shock and horror when it said it was OK to rough them up now and then, to keep them in line and let them know who's boss and to use physical force -- to even hit them if that was needed. When you think about that, we really have come a long, long way."
Twenty years ago if a man beat up a woman, he likely faced 90 days in jail. Tougher laws make second offenses punishable by a year and third offenses punishable by five years in prison.
Fitz, who came here this year from Muskegon County, said, "One of the proudest things I can say as a prosecutor here in Cass County, my new home, is that the first jury trial held in my tenure was a domestic violence third charge. A man beat up his wife. As it was later revealed, he continued to assault her, kicking her and pounding her head again and again into the floor. She's fortunate she's not one of the candles we see tonight. He was convicted by one my assistants, David Moore, and justice was done. We've come a long, long way."
Fitz can remember in the not-too-distant past when police separated the combatants and left. The assailant shut the door with a wink "and then the tragedy would continue for weeks, months and even years. We have come a long, long way," he said. "The law used to be that unless he saw it, the officer couldn't arrest anyone that night. The woman was left there to suffer whatever might happen the rest of the night. Now, thanks to the Legislature, if officers have reason to believe an assault occurred, they can put the perpetrator in jail that night. We've come a long, long way."
DNA evidence, recording capability and photographic evidence of "bruised eyes, broken arms and shattered spirits" have also advanced the cause, Fitz said. "We had a case this week in Circuit Court where years ago this person would have been facing a 90-day misdemeanor. Because this man went into a house that wasn't his and beat up a woman, he faced 20 years in prison. We have come a long, long way. You never would have seen this five years ago, but the defense attorney came up to me and offered a plea for 10 years for an offense of assault with intent to do great bodily harm. I said no. This man deserves to go to prison for as long as possible. We still have the tragedy of domestic violence victims who say they're at fault. A young lady asked Judge Dodge to let her boyfriend go and to put her in jail. She 'fell in a field and hit her head' … Judge Dodge said he was sorry, but he didn't believe her and he protected her and society from people such as her boyfriend. The fight is never over when it comes to domestic violence, despite the fact we've come a long way. We can never sleep when it comes to protecting victims of domestic violence," Fitz said. "Let us always remember that we can never forget."
Ruth Andrews of the Human Services Coordinating Council, has been part of the Cass County Family Violence Task Force for seven years. "It's really encouraging to me to have that kind of perspective, to see how the kind of work we do to prevent family violence has been progressing. We got a big boost last fall when Cass County received a Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. You might not think domestic violence has a lot to do with school violence. But when you think about it, violence in most cases begins at home."
At one end of the spectrum, Andrews said, are families that operate in an abusive way with a "petty dictator who rules by fear and intimidation. At the other end, we've got a democratic family with open communication and values on fairness and problem-solving. There are children in each of these families. When they go to school and they're under a lot of stress for whatever reason, how are they going to respond? With the tools they have that they learned at home. You can see why there's a connection between family violence and school safety."
Mark Herman of the Cass County Youth Committee said, "I think of domestic violence in a school setting every day" as Juvenile Court referee. "I see how it affects the schools and children in everyday life … domestic violence in the home with youth involved leads to crime, further violence and child abuse and neglect as people get older."
In her invocation, Pastor Melodye Rider said, "We pray for uprooted children whose lives have been turned upside down by forces beyond their control."
Chris Siebenmark, representing state Sen. Ron Jelinek, said, "In an era of mass media zooming by us on TV, the Internet or in newspapers, it gets lost in the shuffle of all that information. Then you attend an evening like this and see very real names which I will recite along with you. Ron taught for 30 years at River Valley High School, where I was a student. He also helped found our ambulance service in Three Oaks. Both those positions put him in the front lines … providing children with a comfortable ear."