Swingle- Law effective against domestic abuse

Saturday, November 24, 2001

JACKSON, Mo. -- Missouri's year-old domestic abuse law makes even a slap punishable by up to seven years in prison, a penalty that some lawyers view as too tough.

But Morley Swingle, Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney, likes the new law. He said it's an effective tool for battling domestic violence.

The law allows prosecutors to treat all domestic-violence cases as felonies. Forty-four people have been sentenced to an average of 4.4 years in prison since the law went into effect 14 months ago.

Prosecutors have discretion to charge people arrested for domestic assault with either misdemeanors or felonies.

Swingle said his office routinely levels felony charges against assailants.

"We have been vigorously using it in our county because it allows you to charge an assault that is normally a misdemeanor as a felony," he said.

"Any slap, punch, kick or hit between domestic partners under the new law can be a felony," he said.

That way, assailants are arrested and have to post bond. In posting bond, the offender typically must agree to stay away from the abused partner.

"It provides a measure of immediate protection for the victim," Swingle said. The goal, he said, is to break the cycle of violence that can leave the victim in fear of her life.

Plea for lesser charges

Swingle said his office will reduce felonies to misdemeanor charges in assault cases where no weapon was used and the victim wasn't seriously injured and doesn't oppose the move.

The lesser charges come in exchange for a guilty plea. Offenders in such cases typically are put on probation and ordered to undergo counseling and many times treatment for alcohol and drug abuse.

In the past, less-serious assaults often were handled in municipal court by city prosecutors. Swingle said his office abandoned that practice and handles the prosecution of all domestic-violence cases in the county.

Richard Callahan, director of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the law coerces people to plead guilty to lesser charges in many cases.

Swingle said the law gives his office a new tool in efforts to prosecute domestic-violence cases. That's important because cases often are difficult to prosecute because victims fear testifying in court.

The Cape Girardeau County prosecutor's office handles over 300 domestic violence cases every year, Swingle said.

He said his office obtained convictions in 30 of 56 domestic-violence cases from Aug. 28 to Dec. 28 last year, the first three months the new law was in effect.

Forty-one percent of the cases were dismissed, slightly more than during the same three-month period in 1999. But Swingle estimated half of the dismissals involved offenders being placed in a diversion program that requires offenders to get counseling and undergo supervised probation for a year. At the end of that time, the charges are dismissed.

Kansas City defense lawyer Sean O'Brien said the law is an uncreative attack on a social problem. Offenders face the possibility of a longer prison sentence than for those convicted of assaulting strangers.

A misdemeanor conviction can carry a punishment of up to a year in jail while a felony conviction for a similar assault can carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison.

Malcolm Montgomery, a Cape Girardeau lawyer who has defended men charged with domestic violence, said it is "flat wrong" to have a state law that allows prosecutors to pursue felony convictions in cases involving minor assaults.

But the director of a women's shelter defends the law.

"Domestic violence isn't usually a one-time incident. It is a battering relationship. It goes on every day," said Cheryl Robb-Welch, who directs the Safe House for Women in Cape Girardeau.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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