"Date Night" Inadequate Sentence in Domestic Violence Case

BlogHer Original Post

If a man puts his hands on his wife's neck in anger and throws her against a couch, at least one judge thinks that a date night at Red Lobster, bowling, and some flowers are enough to set things right.

After Broward County, Fla., Judge John Hurley heard Plantation, Fla. woman Sonja Bray's case last week following allegations of domestic violence against her husband John, he decided, since it was the man's first offense -- an offense this judge described as "very, very minor" -- that maybe a little romance would do the trick. The judge asked Sonja where she liked to eat, and what she liked to do, and issued his sentence:

[Her husband is] going to stop by somewhere and he's going to get some flowers. And then he's going to go home, pick up his wife, get dressed, take her to Red Lobster. And then after they have Red Lobster, they're going to go bowling.

Red Lobster
Image by me and the sysop via Flickr

The judge also ordered marriage counseling for the couple.

Consider Sonja Bray's statement during the first appearance hearing (in a courtroom, in front of her husband, who had recently assaulted her) that she was not afraid of her husband. Consider that it was Bray's first offense. Sure, even consider that Sonja got upset because, as reported, her husband did not acknowledge her birthday, which set the whole thing off in the first place.

But let's pretend for a moment that this wasn't, in the judge's view, a trivial situation, reasonably responded to as a misunderstanding easily remedied with cheddar biscuits and crab legs.

At some point in the conflict, Bray's husband grabbed her by the neck and threw her against the couch. The police came, Mr. Bray was arrested, and then there was a hearing. And now they are supposed to go to Red Lobster to sort things out?

When did taking a woman on a date resolve a conflict severe enough that it resulted in physical violence? When was any physical attack on any person severe enough that it ends in a courtroom a source of amusement for anyone, but especially from the judge hearing the case? When is it remotely reasonable for a defense attorney to ask a judge if his client has to let his wife win at bowling as a part of his "sentence"?

At the risk of interrupting the frivolity here, I can't help remembering that every offender has a first offense. Grabbing and choking -- particularly when reasonably agreed upon to have occurred in the family home -- rank as domestic violence, as Plantation police spokesman Det. Rob Rettig continues to define what happened to Ms. Bray.

We determined that a domestic violence law had been violated and we acted accordingly. The Plantation police are going to continue to arrest offenders regarding domestic violence wherever probable cause exists. According to Florida law the act that took place in this case was indeed an act of domestic violence.

There may be times when increased time together and improved communication can help smooth out the bumps in a relationship. I may suggest to a friend who's feeling strain at home that maybe a night out, some dedicated time and attention to each other, can help with challenges to happiness and harmony.

I try to imagine responding in the same way if a friend told me her partner struck or otherwise assaulted her, and I can't. People can come back from isolated incidences of relationship violence with time and care, but it takes time and care.

An ex-boyfriend stood over me once, drunk and enraged, gesturing as though he was going to put his hands around my neck. We were interrupted and I moved past it, young and in love and deep in denial, but I was never fully unafraid of him again. He never completed his action, but I knew from that point on that he was capable of hurting me -- not just in the physical sense, but in the sense that he would.

Florida victim advocacy group Women in Distress has retracted a complaint against Judge Hurley. Representative Mary Reidel now says that he is "a good judge and an honorable person and he takes this [situation] seriously. My comments in no way would attack him personally, in any way." But what the Wall Street Journal calls an example of "creative sentencing," I call irresponsible silliness in response to a violent situation in a home.

Maybe this is because I have a good idea of how hard it is for people who suffer at the hands of relationship violence to get a fair shake and a place of safety within and outside of the criminal justice system. Maybe it's because I lost a dear friend to a first offender of a boyfriend armed with a gun and a vendetta. Maybe it's because I am tired of examples of women pandered to as the little lady who just needs a night out on the town to fix things up.

Maybe it's because I don't care for reading ledes and punchlines like this in newspaper articles about domestic violence cases of any severity or scope:

"Just in time for Valentine's Day, a Florida judge ruled on Tuesday that a man involved in a scuffle with his wife treat her to an evening at a local bowling alley and a romantic meal at Red Lobster...

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Fortunately for Bray and his wife, the Plantation Red Lobster receives high marks in Google Maps' Review section." -- MSNBC

"Justice will be served at Red Lobster in one Florida domestic dispute." -- CBSNews.com

"Money is frequently an issue in domestic disputes. So it would really help if these court-ordered entertainment packages could be good deals, too.

In other words, plea bargains that are more like Groupon bargains.

First time offenders might be offered the box-of-chocolates/Olive Garden/mini-golf package, while recidivists on their last chance would have to agree to the skywriter/Cafe L'Europe/Miami Heat tickets route. Sentencing this way might stimulate marriages and the economy at the same time, and free up the courts to take a sharper focus on the more serious cases of domestic violence." -- Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post

I hope that Sonja Bray is safe, and that the couple is assisted in finding a counselor who will help them -- especially her, as she works through the aftermath of being assaulted by her spouse. I respect her wishes to work out her relationship issues. But I also believe that any time a person lands in a courtroom as a result of any kind of relationship violence, that it is serious. I believe that how every complaint is handled affects not only the person standing there, but all other people who may in the future, and that judges who practice "creative sentencing" are challenged, especially when violence is involved. And finally, if I had a chance to ask one question of Judge Hurley, it would be this:

If someone stronger than he is put hands around his neck and threw him against a piece of furniture, would Red Lobster, bowling and some flowers put things right for him?

I can't say I know for sure what he'd say, but I'd just like to ask him the question.

Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr.

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