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Maryland domestic violence killings expose cracks in system

Melissa Davis' husband had six domestic-violence arrests in less than a year of marriage, and was released by a judge on his own recognizance.

Katie Hadel's ex-boyfriend was let out of jail early on good behavior.

And Candace Hurt's husband had three women seek court protection against him but didn't follow through.

Davis, Hadel and Hurt all were killed this year in what police describe as domestic homicides by these men. Police, prosecutors or court officials had been in touch with each of them in the months, days, or, in Davis' case, hours before they died.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence say these and other cases expose cracks in a system that is supposed to protect the vulnerable — and raise the question of whether police and courts can effectively identify people who pose a deadly threat to their partners.

Five women have been killed in Baltimore so far this year in what police say were domestic homicides, compared with an average of six in each of the previous four years.

At a legislative oversight hearing this week, top police officials took questions about the killings. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the deaths are contributing to this year's uptick in murders. He pointed out that there had been no domestic murders at this point last year.

"I have been alarmed by the number of domestic issues," Batts said.

Particularly vexing for Davis' family is the fact that her husband, Daren Ruffin, was released by a court hours before her death. He had been charged with assaulting her but was not required to post bail.

On Tuesday, Ruffin pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder in the death of Davis. He was ordered held pending a trial in May.

Family members say there were many opportunities — in Maryland and elsewhere — for police and prosecutors to stop the violent cycle.

"There's a trail of people who are accountable," said Teneka Williams, a cousin of Davis.

Law enforcement officials say the cases show some of the inherent challenges in confronting domestic violence. It can be difficult for police, prosecutors or judges to determine whether a relationship is dangerous. Police in Baltimore handle several thousand domestic violence complaints every year. And the task is made more challenging when victims are unwilling or afraid to work with authorities.

Davis declined to testify against Ruffin in an earlier assault case, and he was acquitted. Hadel was under police observation at a family member's house but was killed after she returned to her own apartment without notifying officers.

Police, prosecutors and advocates say they've made progress in addressing domestic violence, and the number of domestic-related homicides had dropped significantly in both Baltimore and the state in previous years.

Yet despite their efforts, recent cases highlight the amount of work that remains.

Advocates are trying to fill the gaps in the judicial system with volunteer outreach coordinators, and by pushing for stronger laws. They say their efforts will never stop all domestic homicides, but they're hoping for a further reduction in violence.

"When there are these terrible tragedies, we keep trying to make the system as close to perfect as possible," said Tracy Brown, executive director of the Women's Law Center of Maryland.

Brenda Ballard, Davis' mother, remembers the way her daughter would dote on the man she married — getting up at 3:30 a.m., for example, to make him breakfast.

The devotion was not returned, Ballard said, as Ruffin was arrested on several assault charges, first in Massachusetts and later in Maryland.

The marriage ended in tragedy in January with Davis found dead of stab wounds in the couple's Baltimore apartment and Ruffin charged with first-degree murder. His lawyer, a public defender, was not present at Ruffin's arraignment Tuesday and did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Davis' family has criticized the Baltimore justice system for what members say was a failure to protect Davis from Ruffin, but court officials say the volume of cases they handle makes it difficult to determine which victims are most at risk.

The Baltimore court commissioner who released Ruffin without bail after his sixth assault arrest in late January is no longer on the job. The commissioner, Eric Gooden, did not respond to requests for comment. Officials would not discuss the circumstances of his departure.

Dorothy Lennig, director of the legal clinic at House of Ruth Maryland, said Davis' case calls for examining whether officials could have done anything differently.

"These are the hardest kinds of cases because, in retrospect, you can see the whole picture, and you can kind of see where things don't work," she said.

Protective orders

Katie Hadel's mother says Jeffrey Matthew Shiflett, the man now charged in her death, had threatened her daughter for years.

Shiflett and Hadel had a brief relationship years ago, her family said, but she had broken it off and gotten married.

Shiflett had been behind bars for a robbery he'd committed with Hadel in 2007. But by December, he had earned enough prison credit that he was required to be released on good behavior.

After his release, police advised Hadel, 33, to stay at her mother's house, where officers would check on her a few times a day. Against their advice, police said she returned to her apartment in Garrison on Feb. 5, and was stabbed to death.

Shiflett was arrested the following day and charged with first-degree murder.

Shiflett is being held without bond awaiting a preliminary hearing this month on the murder charge. His lawyer, a public defender, did not respond to several requests for comment.

Victim advocates say Hadel's case highlights the limitations of state law regarding protective and peace orders. Both kinds of orders limit contact between the two people, yet protective orders last longer and can have stronger protections.

In a protective order, a judge can order a subject to surrender firearms, leave a joint residence or provide temporary financial support. A final protective order can last up to a year, with possible extensions, while peace orders only last up to six months.

Protective orders are also more difficult to get. They are available only against a current or former spouse, a partner with whom the petitioner has a child, or live-in partner of at least three months.

Hadel made at least three requests for court protection against Shiflett but was eligible only for a peace order.

Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said protective orders should include people who are dating or have lived with each other for less than 90 days so they cover all relationships.

"They have the same kinds of issues and dynamics that people who are living together have," she said.

But being eligible to request a protective order is only half the battle. In Maryland, a petitioner must show proof of danger before being granted a protective order. Jordan said that hurdle has been a "consistent problem" in Maryland.

Tracy West, an Anne Arundel County woman whom police say was shot by her estranged husband, tried to obtain two protective orders against him. She obtained a temporary order against Calvin Cofield on New Year's Eve, but a judge denied a permanent order, saying there was insufficient evidence that it was necessary.

Police say Cofield shot and wounded West at her workplace, a newspaper distribution center in Annapolis, in late January before killing himself.

West was discharged from the hospital Feb. 13. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.

On Feb. 19, police logged another domestic homicide in Baltimore. Police say Candace Hurt, a state probation agent who volunteered with a nonprofit conflict resolution center, was shot to death by her husband, Alvin Baird, who killed himself afterward.

Hurt had applied for a protective order in late December, after Baird allegedly pulled a gun on her. But she didn't return to court, so a final protective order was never issued.

Two other women filed for legal protection against Baird in the past four years, but they also failed to return to court to finish applying for long-term orders.

Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at the school of nursing at Johns Hopkins University, said some women understand their risk, but, as a coping mechanism, choose to ignore it.

"That is very scary, to walk around all day thinking the person who somewhere along the line was supposed to love you the most is capable of killing you," Campbell said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Kevin Rector and Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

amatas@baltsun.com

cwells@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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