Domestic violence is public problem

Perhaps it's possible that one month ago you thought domestic violence didn't impact your life because you weren't naive enough to become — or stay — a victim.

You would never hurt someone you are close to. Or maybe you thought that fights — even physical ones — between spouses or partners should be worked out behind closed doors and not in a courtroom.

But those excuses for ignoring domestic violence in this community sound pretty flimsy today. It's been one month since Michelet Polynice hunted down and killed his estranged girlfriend Carlene Pierre and a co-worker inside the International Drive-area hotel where she worked.

He opened fire as tourists were eating breakfast. Then he drove to another resort and shot Pierre's friend. If any of us had gotten in his way, we could be dead, too.

That's what happened to the stylists and customers at the Casselberry hair salon where Bradford Baumet went Oct. 18 to murder estranged girlfriend Marcia Santiago. She is still fighting for her life, but he killed three others before shooting himself.

In just one month, domestic violence has claimed at least 11 lives in Central Florida, and four were simply bystanders.

The notion that domestic violence is a private family affair can be tossed along with the twisted idea that victims are somehow to blame for their abuse.

Domestic violence is very much a public problem that deserves public attention. But it's also one that frequently slips through the cracks.

In 2010 the State Attorney's Office received 12,577 domestic-violence cases in Orange and Osceola counties. But charges were filed in 2,044 — or just 16 percent — of the cases.

About half of those resulted in some type of plea deal. Only 79 cases went to trial that year, and just 42 defendants were found guilty.

Michelle Latham, the chief domestic-violence prosecutor, said her office's statistics have improved dramatically since a felony domestic-violence unit was formed a little more than a year ago. Now she says the number of cases reaching trial, plea agreements or a diversion program is nearing the office's goal of 80 percent.

And she's helping to train law-enforcement officers on how to assist the state attorney in building better cases against batterers.

But Polynice is a good example of how some cases get missed.

About two weeks before Pierre was killed, Polynice showed up at her workplace and ran her over with a car, sending her to the hospital. An Orange County sheriff's deputy responded and began an investigation but hadn't completed it because authorities still hadn't interviewed Pierre, who took off before deputies arrived, said sheriff's Capt. Angelo Nieves.

Because the report wasn't completed, it wasn't passed along to the State Attorney's Office. And Polynice, who had a long, violent history, wasn't arrested.

If he had been, Latham said, it's possible he would have been in jail Sept. 27, the day he killed two women, shot another and then killed himself.

"She [Pierre] went to get an injunction ... she was cooperative," Latham said. "So what we can do on domestic-violence cases is if a victim thinks she's going to be killed, we can file motions and keep them [defendants] in jail until trial."

Nieves said deputies tried to interview Polynice later, but he never showed.

"This is hindsight," Nieves said. "The case wasn't closed ... it was sent to the domestic unit for follow-up when this tragedy occurred."

Some law-enforcement agencies have made dramatic changes in how they handle domestic-violence cases so that prosecutors have a better chance of success in court.

CHICAGO

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