Roper slaying part of domestic fatalities spike.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Macheel Roper, who endured years of physical abuse at the hands of her husband, became a statistic last week. But not how you might think.
Murder charges were dismissed against the CSU Monterey Bay student and mother of two during a preliminary hearing. Judge Terrance Duncan determined Roper acted in self-defense in what he called a “classic case” of spousal abuse.
Roper, 40, was charged in the fatal stabbing of her husband, Christopher, last December at their home in university student housing. He was punching her and she fled to the kitchen, grabbing a knife to defend herself. Her husband lunged at her and he ended up dead.
Death in a domestic violence situation is not uncommon, but most often, it’s the woman. No trial is rare.
“It’s very unusual for a first–degree murder case to get dismissed in a preliminary hearing,” says Monterey County Public Defender Jim Egar, who represented Roper. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and this has never happened [for me].”
The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office had argued that Roper’s response to her husband’s attack was not warranted, given she had handled his past assaults.
“You have to look at what was different this time,” says Charles Olvis, managing deputy DA for the office’s domestic violence unit. “We felt [the fatal stabbing] was not a reasonable response based on what had happened before.”
Roper, who is trying to get on with her life and finish school, declined to be interviewed.
Domestic violence homicides are becoming more familiar to local DAs. Three pending cases involve fatalities, and authorities are seeking more evidence in another one.
“Yeah, it’s a little high,” Olvis acknowledges of the number of fatalities, saying he can’t point to any particular reason why.
He notes that domestic violence cases increased in the county between 2006 and 2008, and adds there are four deputy DAs assigned to the domestic violence unit, one more than to the gang unit.
“That’s because we have a much higher volume of cases,” says Olvis, who has been in charge of the unit for seven years. One reason is gang cases are filed as felonies, 160 last year. Domestic violence cases cover felonies and misdemeanors.
According to the state Attorney General’s office, Monterey County had one domestic violence fatality in each of 2002 and 2003, zero in 2004 and 2005, and two in 2006.
Statewide, domestic violence-related homicides totaled 181 in 2002; 187 in 2003; 163 in 2004; 160 in 2005 and 141 in 2006.
The overall number of domestic violence cases referred last year to the DA’s office was 1,616, Olvis says. Of those, 221 were felonies and 1,395 were misdemeanors. The office rejects about 30 percent of the cases for lack of proof.
Help is available for victims of domestic violence in the county from shelters, hotlines and counseling centers. But many victims don’t take advantage of what’s offered, perhaps out of ignorance, shame or fear. And even if someone summons the courage to leave a bad situation, that might not be enough.
“Getting help and getting out doesn’t mean you are safe,” says Rita Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “A number of women are murdered after getting away.”
Smith believes most people know help is available. The problem, she says, is that a victim of domestic violence first must acknowledge what is happening.
Often the abuser will make excuses for bad behavior. But once a victim gets past the excuses, Smith says, “then you have to believe your are going to succeed at getting out. Most of the time that belief has been effectively undermined by the way the perpetrator has treated [the victim]. It is a monumental step that people take to call for assistance.”
Her organization encourages people to get restraining orders, but says the system doesn’t do a good job enforcing them.
“If [a victim] calls every time and [the police] respond every time, and there are consequences every time, [the violence] might stop,’’ Smith says.
Roper had a restraining order, but asked that it be lifted, a common occurrence, Olvis says, because victims often want to keep their relationship together.
At the same time, he says, “We see a lot of cases of violating restraining orders.” Last year, his office filed 163 such cases.
Smith fears the weakening economy will exacerbate domestic violence situations.
“Anytime you put additional pressure on someone who deals badly with stress anyway, it is going to make it more likely that there will be negative outcomes,” Smith says.
Neighbors, family and friends should act if they notice increasing violence, and law enforcement needs to recognize the same signs, she says.
“My experience is that if we don’t respond, the violence escalates,” Smith says, “and there is the potential it will turn into a homicide.”