Senators urged to strengthen state's domestic violence laws

Brandy King wants a judge to order her abusive ex-husband not to contact her ever again. But as Maryland law now stands, the courts can't do that.

King asked a state Senate committee Tuesday to change the law as she testified in support of legislation, backed by the O'Malley administration, to tighten Maryland's domestic violence statutes. One bill would allow her to obtain a permanent protective order against her former husband, who was convicted of assaulting her, before he is released from jail.


"I don't want to be one of those people you hear about in the news who has died because of domestic violence," King said.

The Sykesville woman was one of several domestic violence victims and survivors who joined administration officials, advocates and experts in support of the administration's package.


Gov. Martin O'Malley is backing legislation that, among other things, would end Maryland's status as the most difficult state for victims seeking a protective court order against an abuser. A second bill would help victims like King by making it easier to obtain a permanent order against abusers convicted of second-degree assault — the most common criminal charge in domestic violence cases. The third would allow added punishment for abusers who commit domestic violence crimes in the presence of children.

That proposal would allow a judge to impose an added sentence of up to five years if abuse occurs where a child can see, hear or otherwise perceive that it is taking place.

Bonita Sims of Anne Arundel County said such a provision might have protected her niece, Ronnesha Simms, who was stabbed to death at her Annapolis home in September by a former boyfriend in front of their children. Sims said William R. Brown Jr., who was shot and killed by responding police, had previously abused her niece in front of the children.

Sims told senators the victim's daughter, who was 2 years old at the time of the attack, still talks about seeing her daddy cut her mommy.

Julie Drake, director of forensic social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said decades of research show that children who are exposed to domestic violence frequently develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder similar to those affecting many soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.

"They feel they are living in a war zone, and the effects are the same," Drake said. Those effects, she said, include depression, anxiety, lower IQ and an increased propensity toward similar violence.

Some senators expressed misgivings about wording in the bill that could allow a conviction based on a child's perception that a crime had occurred rather than requiring that the abuse occurred in the child's sight or hearing.

Lawmakers expressed no reservations about the bill to change the standard of proof for obtaining a protective order, under which a judge can order an abusive partner to have no contact with a victim and to surrender all firearms. Violating such an order is a crime.


Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and lead sponsor of the administration-backed bill, said Maryland is the only state to require that a victim show "clear and convincing proof" in order to obtain a protective order. In the other 49 states, he said, a judge can impose an order if there's more evidence that the abuse occurred than that it did not — the same standard used in most civil cases.

The higher standard makes a difference, according to the administration. Jeanne Hitchcock, O'Malley's legislative director, said more than 3,000 orders were denied by judges last year because the victim didn't meet Maryland's high standard.

Hitchcock also urged lawmakers to approve another bill that would add second-degree assault — the offense for which King's ex-husband was convicted — to the list of crimes for which the victim can petition the courts to impose a lifetime ban on further contact by the abuser. The bill would also allow such an order in cases in which the defendant has been sentenced to a term of five years or more. The law now requires that the offender have actually served five years.