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When assembly-line justice fails

January 12, 2008|SANDY BANKS

There were no news crews at her funeral on Friday; no outrage or "if onlys" from mourners in the sun-drenched chapel, just a few miles from the gritty Whittier motel where Monica Thomas-Harris' body was discovered.

She was remembered simply as a good friend, fun-loving cousin and devoted mother to her young son and teenage daughter. Her eulogy made no mention of the way she died -- shot once in the head by her estranged husband, who then killed himself.

When an old friend took the microphone and read a poem lamenting the silence that surrounds domestic violence, the woman was gently ushered back to her pew.

The message was clear, said my newsroom colleague Paloma Esquivel, who attended the funeral and heard mourners whisper that her family wanted the speaker to stop.

To her family, the 37-year-old woman in the casket, who liked gumbo and "I Love Lucy" reruns, was a smart, tough, hard-working loved one who kept her troubles to herself.

But to the public, news coverage of her murder has turned Thomas-Harris into an unwitting symbol of domestic violence and the tragic failure of the justice system.

I find it hard to understand how a man with two prison terms in his past and several public displays of brutality could be freed from jail one month after he kidnapped his estranged wife, handcuffed her to a bed, bound her with duct tape and threatened her with a stun gun.

Like so many who've watched this story unfold, I want to know who or what to blame.

Curtis Harris had been arrested in November after Monica turned him in for kidnapping and terrorizing her. He spent a month in jail but was set free temporarily last month by a cadre of court officials.

The prosecution allowed an attorney unfamiliar with the case to shepherd it through a crucial final hearing. The defense attorney negotiated a deal that would send Harris to prison for 16 months but would first give him one month of freedom to get his "affairs in order."

We don't know what the judge who approved the deal was thinking; judicial ethics prevent her from explaining. But I was told by court spokesman Allan Parachini that she's a veteran of domestic violence cases who was serving in an unfamiliar court on a scheduled day off -- the Friday before the long Christmas weekend -- because four other judges were on vacation.

The judge handled 44 cases that day. Even if she worked through lunch, that's about 10 minutes a case -- assembly-line justice.

Parachini said she had only two choices: Accept the plea. Or reject it and toss the case back to the original judge. She had no way of knowing the couple's tortured history: The court file she had made no mention of the prior abuse inflicted on Monica, who married Harris while he was in prison and separated from him soon after he got out. The judge did not know that Monica had sought a restraining order against her husband when she filed for divorce two years ago.

And although a Probation Department document declared Harris "unsuitable for release," the judge trusted the attorneys' recommendations.

In hindsight, it's easy to say she was wrong. But mistakes are made every day in busy courts.

"A lot of the judges are so overburdened, they don't have time to listen to the details of the cases," said Don Stephenson, who helps abuse victims file for restraining orders, as the legal services coordinator for Jenesse Center, the oldest domestic violence intervention program in South Los Angeles.

"That puts them in the position of making an off-the-cuff decision. . . . I know they're frustrated and overworked. But it's tragic to see what happens."

But Monica made poor choices too, following a pattern that's typical of abuse victims. She dropped her earlier effort to get a restraining order even though Harris had threatened her and bashed in the windows of her home. She told co-workers -- who heard him screaming at her as she cried in the parking lot -- that she didn't believe he was dangerous. When her father asked if she was having problems, she told him to stay out of it.

"We see many, many cases like this," Stephenson said. "There's secrecy and embarrassment. You don't want to talk about the fact that you're still with somebody who is terrorizing you.

"The women love these men and subject themselves to this kind of abuse because they want to believe he won't do it again," Stephenson said. "The only thing I can say is love is strange."

It's human nature to want to believe the best, even if that means closing yourself off from your own -- or someone else's -- suffering.

I found myself thinking this week not just of Monica Thomas-Harris but also of Baby Jasmine, the infant our welfare system let die last summer.

Baby Jasmine spent almost all of her seven weeks living in a skid row rescue mission with a mother so disturbed that she pretended the child was a boy. Mission staff called county welfare workers because the baby seemed to be neglected and losing weight.

The social worker assigned to the case interviewed the mother and wrote in a report that she was "coherent and appropriate to take the child to the doctor." The social worker, who had worked 11 hours without a break, did not follow a supervisor's order to stick around and take the baby to a late-night clinic. Instead, she planned to take Baby Jasmine in the morning. The next day, mission workers stopped the mother as she left the center, carrying the dead baby girl -- dressed for an outing -- in her arms.

Eleven hours without a break. Forty-four cases in one day. Safety nets fail because humans falter. And we cheat our poor and vulnerable by tolerating systems of justice and welfare so overwhelmed that, even at their best, they work well only some of the time.

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