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Legal Aid Attorney provides perspective on domestic violence law

By Phillip Morris in The Plain Dealer on 1/13/19

A Cuyahoga County jury wasted no time determining Thomia (Mia) Hunter’s future on a cold Friday afternoon in January 2005. With less than two hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Hunter, 26, of murder and felonious assault in the stabbing death of Andrew Harris, her on-again, off-again boyfriend. She was given a life sentence.

Melanie GiaMaria remembers the day judgment was rendered. As Hunter’s social worker and a freshly minted lawyer, GiaMaria had followed every moment of the trial.

“The verdict was mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. The medical examiner had concluded that Mia was credible. It was an affirmative defense. It was clear that she was fighting for her life when she stabbed her abuser. She chose to live.”

“I went to the lobby of the Justice Center and waited by the elevator. I knew where the jurors would come down. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but I yelled at them. I let them know that they had made an awful mistake. They had just ruined someone’s life. They were sending a woman to prison for defending herself. I wish I could confront those jurors again today and tell the same thing,” said GiaMaria in a phone conversation Friday.

Ohio Governor John Kasich just sent a message of his own to the criminal justice system that tried and convicted Hunter: Abused lives matter. Last week, Kasich commuted Hunter’s life sentence to time served.

The Ohio Parole Board, which advises governors on commutation decisions, was particularly disturbed by the reality that a battered women’s syndrome defense (a form of post-traumatic stress disorder) was not mounted to explain Hunter’s reaction that fateful night.

Hunter stabbed Harris in the leg and severed his femoral artery as the man choked, beat, and attacked her with a knife in her apartment. Hunter, who had no prior criminal record is now set to be released on July 15 after completing a reentry program run by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Call it a small step forward. But, in Ohio, how far have we actually evolved in our understanding of the horrors and prevalence of domestic violence? Are we really getting better at not looking the other way or simply ignoring it?

“I believe we are getting better at identifying how a history of abuse affects the life or death decisions that people in crisis make,” said Alexandria Ruden, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

“Our social understanding of domestic violence is starting to catch up with the law. Efforts like the Time’s Up and Me Too Movements help. But, we still have a long way to go,” she added.

In 1990, Ohio became one of the last states in the Union to pass a law allowing expert testimony of battered woman syndrome as evidence in a claim of self-defense. At the time the new law was created, it was derided by some Ohio prosecutors, police, and media outlets as a license to kill.

Then Governor Richard Celeste jumped into the middle of the domestic violence debate on his way out of office in December 1991. At the urging of his wife Dagmar Celeste, and others, he granted clemency to 25 woman who were serving time for murder or felonious assault. These were all women who were convicted before a defense was permitted to introduce expert testimony of battered woman’s syndrome in court.

The Plain Dealer published an editorial shortly after the mass clemency, calling Celeste’s decision “either an act of generosity or gross misjudgment.” I remember the commentary well, as I was a member of the editorial board at the time.

Thankfully, we’ve all evolved, including Celeste, 81, living somewhere in Colorado. Even after using his power of clemency to free inmates serving time for violence -- a courageous and proper act justice -- Celeste sent the women home with this extraordinary warning:

“This is not a license to kill someone who comes home and takes a swat at you from time to time,” said Celeste.

A swat or two is often how the nightmare begins.

Yes, we all continue to evolve.

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