State Politics

Manatee-Sarasota group's measure to fight domestic violence awaits governor's review

MANATEE -- A bill that officials say would provide a sharper tool with which to prosecute domestic abusers is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's review.

The bill, House Bill 701, was shepherded to passage by a local group of lawmakers and citizens, and was passed by the Florida Legislature in March.

Now it's up to the governor to either sign it, allow it to become law without his signature, or veto the bill.

"It would truly be another thing in the arsenal for prosecutors in order to hold batterers accountable and combat family violence," said Heather Doyle, division chief at the Bradenton state attorney's office, who was a member of the group from Manatee and Sarasota counties that worked on the bill.

The legislation would change the rules of evidence that govern court cases, allowing "hearsay" statements made by the victim to be admissible if the attacker caused the victim to miss a court appearance, according to a summary of the bill.

"Under this legislation, if prosecutors can show that the victim did not come to court because of the defendant's influence, the victim's testimony can still be allowed as evidence," Doyle said.

Currently, a victim must face the abuser in court, in order for the charges to move forward, officials said.

Under the proposed measure, calls to 911 operators and statements made to police, hospital, and social workers could be admitted into evidence, officials said.

"It's a game-changer," said Susan McMillan, who counsels violent batterers as part of her work as executive

director for the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. "It will literally save thousands of lives to help these victims," said McMillan, who knows what it's like because she was once a battered woman herself.

McMillan said she became frustrated with the low prosecution rate for batterers, and wondered how to change it. Her husband, Matt, the former prosecutor who tried her batterer, helped to formulate some of the legislation's language.

Often, between the abuse and the trial, the attacker pressures his victim to remain silent or to skip court hearings. "The batterer pressures her to shut up," said McMillan. "There could be financial abuse, coercion and threats. It emboldens them. They batter again."

Among local lawmakers who helped pass the bill were Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who sponsored companion legislation; and state Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, co-sponsor of the bill in the House.

"We felt that if a cop pulls up, and the woman's all beat up, and then she doesn't want to press charges, the guy is still guilty," said Bennett. "So we wanted to give them some cover, and let the police officers act even without her testimony."

Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury for women between the ages of 15 and 44, Holder said. Due to battered-woman syndrome, 80 percent to 90 percent of victims are unable or unwilling to cooperate in the prosecution of their attackers, he said.

Said Holder: "Unless this change is made, those who commit acts of violence will continue, with near impunity and very little fear of prosecution."