On Oct. 31, 2009, David W. Johnson allegedly ripped off his girlfriend’s Halloween costume in the Bronx apartment they shared. He then strangled her and threw her against a bureau.
Nine years earlier, New York Governor David Paterson hired David Johnson as an intern. Johnson, who stands tall at 6-foot-7, strikes an imposing figure and he soon became a constant companion to the legally-blind Paterson as his unofficial bodyguard and driver. Despite no prior experience, he quickly shot up the ranks as the governor’s most trusted confidante and advisor. Paterson, who has said on the record that he does not hold adults responsible for their teenage transgressions, chose to overlook the fact that Johnson was arrested at the ages of 16 and 18. The records from the arrest when he was a minor are sealed, but we know that at 18 years of age, Johnson was charged with attempt to sell crack cocaine to an undercover cop and put on five years of probation.
Johnson’s violence against women is nothing new either. In 2001, Johnson had an altercation with his then-girlfriend outside the governor’s Harlem office. Woody Pascal, then Mr. Paterson’s chief of staff, interrupted the altercation. The police were not called. The woman says she had filed a police report against Mr. Johnson for domestic violence before the episode outside Mr. Paterson’s office, but “they [the cops] didn’t take things as seriously back then.” There were no penalties for Johnson’s actions.
Sherr-una Booker, Johnson’s latest girlfriend, went to Family Court and twice obtained temporary orders of protection. However, politics got in the way. The Governor’s administration has conceded that the State Police contacted Ms. Booker in the hours and days after the Oct. 31 alleged assault. One would like to think that perhaps the police were checking up on her and following through with the case, but she has said under oath that the mode of contact was harassment. They were calling to pressure her not to pursue charges. Why would they do this, you might wonder? Why would they, the presumed protectors of justice, try to subvert the rights of this woman to pursue charges against a man who viciously attacked her? Well, they were following orders. And technically, that is what they are supposed to do.
In addition to commandeering the State Police, Mr. Paterson instructed his press secretary, Marissa Shorenstein, to ask Ms. Booker to publicly describe the episode as nonviolent (which is not how she originally described the situation to police and court officials.)
And on Feb. 7, the day before Ms. Booker was to return to Family Court for a permanent order of protection against Mr. Johnson, Paterson enlisted a state employee, Deneane Brown (who is a mutual friend of the governor and Ms. Booker) to arrange a phone conversation between Ms. Booker and himself.
Ms. Booker failed to appear at court the next day, and as a result the case was dismissed.
Eventually, the press got wind of this series of events and on Feb. 25, 2010, The New York Times published a report that the governor had directly intervened in a domestic abuse case. The following day, Mr. Paterson ended his campaign for a full term as governor.
Three and a half months later, the case has become stagnant. In a recent article, The New York Times reports that Mr. Paterson has yet to be questioned, and a date has not even been set for him to be interviewed. A lawyer for Johnson said he had not had contact with investigators for months.
Governor Paterson’s attempts to intercede on behalf of a man accused of attacking his girlfriend is just a high-profile version of a very old story. However unethical and unacceptable Paterson’s behavior, it is far from unique, only a bit more “newsworthy.” Thousands of cases just like these unfold everyday across this country, negatively affecting countless women and children every year.
In some cases, police are the problem. A number of police officers don’t bother to rush when they get a domestic violence call because they assume the woman is being dramatic, or that it’s just a petty fight. Many are wary of intervening in “a man’s private affairs.” But domestic violence is not a private affair. A woman should not be left to deal with an abusive partner alone. If a man attacks a stranger the way he attacks his lover, he would be persecuted much more harshly. The authorities have shown time and time again that they are willing to turn a blind eye to “marital strife” and let the man deal with his woman as he sees fit. The rule of thumb (which originally meant that a man can beat his wife as long as his weapon is no wider than the width of his thumb) is still followed today, both figuratively and literally.
Since police officers are often reluctant to arrest a man who is only guilty of trying to keep his (nagging/slutty/loud-mouthed) girlfriend or wife in line, a new means of relief for the victim was established in the 1980s. This new legal remedy is known as the protective order.
It has been 30 years since protective orders were devised. Three fast-paced decades in which we have witnessed monumental technological, political and social change, but three decades in which little progress has been made in ending domestic violence. Despite all of the innovations that have been tried from Alaska to Maine, in 2010 we find ourselves in much the same place as 1970. All of the work we have done to train, mandate and educate has wrought no appreciable change for battered women.
This most recent egregious case involving the New York Governor is proof. Despite the victim going to court twice to get a protective order, one was never granted. In New York, a protective order is not in effect until it has been served to the alleged abuser, and so all Mr. Johnson had to do was cleverly avoid being served. In the courthouse (during a hearing at which Johnson did not show) Mr. Johnson’s attorney refused service on behalf of his client.
Ultimately, the case was dismissed when Ms. Booker didn’t attend the third attempt at a hearing. We know now that her failure to appear in court was heavily influenced by the Governor. After months of pressure to drop the case, he took measures into his own hands and spoke with her the day before the final court date. The system worked to benefit the accused perpetrator and not the victim. Power trumped vulnerability. This is oldest refrain in the history of domestic violence.
The criminal justice system has major limitations when it comes to dealing with domestic violence. Indeed, domestic violence is the only crime that requires victims to take extraordinary steps to maintain their safety, the safety of their family and the safety of the community. No other crime imposes such responsibilities on a victim. And, make no mistake, it is a Crime with a capital C. It is not marital strife, a lovers’ quarrel, a domestic dispute, nor is it a rough patch or short-lived spat. The euphemism effect has rendered this sort of violence tame in the minds of too many. It is time that everyone opens their eyes and realizes that domestic violence is criminal violence, and it is likely even more damaging than other forms of criminal actions given the emotional manipulation involved in partner abuse.
Piecemeal measures are not enough. It is time for the criminal justice system to throw out the current model and move toward a solution.
The governor’s public debacle exploited historic flaws in the system. Johnson was put on leave, but he has not truly been punished for his crime. Paterson’s reputation is (further) tarnished, but he’s not going to suffer much. Justice may never prevail in this case, as it has not prevailed in countless cases before it, but let this front-page story be a reminder of all the stories buried in the myriad of newspapers. So often, domestic violence cases don’t make news until someone has to write an obituary.
Let this story serve as an example of power misused and courts misguided, and let this story serve as an impetus for reform.