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Domestic violence cases rise, swamping courts


At 9:33 a.m. on a recent Monday, Patricia Crocetti sat before a packed courtroom in Glen Burnie and described the night her former boyfriend beat her. "He was shoving, pushing, holding me down, choking me," she said, her voice choking. "He wouldn't let go of my arms."

It was a painful moment for her, but a short one. Ms. Crocetti was one victim among dozens waiting to tell their stories to District Judge Essom V. Ricks. All before noon.

It is the time District Court officials have set aside to hear an ever-increasing load of domestic violence cases. Up to 15 cases in two hours and 50 minutes on Mondays. An average of 11 minutes per case.

There is scarcely time for legal niceties here. The judge is a timekeeper as much as a decision-maker, and on this morning he has heard enough from Ms. Crocetti, 40, of Glen Burnie. He turns to her boyfriend, Pierce Gillenwater.

"I went in [to my bedroom] and asked her where my car was," said Mr. Gillenwater, 21. "She laughed at me and told me I didn't have a car anymore so I grabbed her by her arms and told her she had to leave. She punched me in the face."

The judge was skeptical. "You do not have the right to physically grab her, you do not have that privilege," he scolded.

By 9:50 a.m., he had told Ms. Crocetti to move out of Mr. Gillenwater's apartment and warned Mr. Gillenwater to stay away from her or be arrested. Case closed in 17 minutes.

"I have quite a bit to do this morning," Judge Ricks said, picking up the next blue folder. "And at the rate I'm going, it doesn't look like I'm going to get it done."

The number of domestic violence cases in Maryland has tripled since 1989, as awareness of the problem increased and new legislation made more people eligible for protection. In Anne Arundel, the number of cases has increased nearly fourfold, according to court records.

"It swamps us," said Jennifer DuLaney, who has counseled victims at District Court for five years. "It really bogs down the system."

Some cases are shuffled to different courtrooms. Some victims, late for work, leave in frustration before their case is called. Some show up for court only to drop the charges.

"We'd like to give it another try," Laura Young, a Linthicum woman who charged that her husband slapped her in the face and the back of the head, announced in District Judge Vincent A. Mulleri's courtroom Monday.

Seeming frustrated, Judge Mulleri ordered the couple to seek counseling. He asked her husband, Joseph Young, why he hit his wife.

"It's just that she lied to me," said Mr. Young.

The judge snapped back: "So every time you don't like something somebody says, you hit them? We're just not going to accept that."

But because Mrs. Young dropped charges, he could only require the couple to go to counseling, and they left with their 2 1/2 -year-old son, Joey, still arguing.

There is no typical case. Businesswomen in power suits, heels and gold earrings testify against boy friends who wear suits and carry briefcases. Women in shorts and T-shirts carrying babies seek protection from estranged husbands. Mothers try to get their sons thrown out of the house.

Last Monday, a single mother successfully sought a protection order against the 19-year-old son she said had threatened the family. "He's a monster," said Barbara Fox, 41, of Pasadena.

Caught in the middle was her 15-year-old son, Jeff, who was to testify against his brother. "I feel for my mom," he said, shuffling his feet beneath oversized shorts, but "my friends think I'm a ratter now."

Occasionally, men come to court looking for help against abusive women.

When Mark Hopkins, a tall, muscular 21-year-old, strode down the aisle of Judge Ricks' courtroom two weeks ago, the crowd gazed in sympathy at his wife, Sandy Hopkins, a weeping young women in a flowery dress, who was trailing behind. They were shocked to see Mr. Hopkins take the plaintiff's chair.

"She came running out of her vehicle and attacked me, clawing my face," the Pasadena man explained to the judge.

But Mrs. Hopkins swore she never saw her husband that day. "Everything he just said is untrue," she sobbed.

Without witnesses, photos or police reports, Judge Ricks was stuck. "I can't decide who is telling the truth," he told them. But because Mr. Hopkins could not prove his claim, "You lose," he said. The couple was ushered out.

Occasionally, alleged victims use domestic abuse charges to argue over children, cars or property in front of a judge.

Mr. Hopkins conceded in court he wanted something other than protection. "She's trying to keep me from my son," he said. "That's why I'm here today. My son and my vehicle."

In the rushed atmosphere of Monday mornings, judges must balance the need to give people a full and fair

hearing with the necessity of hearing all the cases, Judge Ricks explained during a short lunch break.

"That is a very tough balance to strike," he said.

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