One common problem that drives police officers crazy is domestic violence. There are few people more despised by the police than those who harm children or women—maybe people who hurt animals—but the situation is often not as clear-cut as some would has us believe. Officers are always careful in such situations, for as they handcuff and try to remove the offending male, the battered, bleeding woman may very well attack them. The fact that battered women often return to their abusers despite Herculean efforts by officers and others in the system is also a major cause of frustration and disgust.
This edition of The Literature Corner pays a true, early morning visit to the ravaged apartment of just such a couple as the officer explains what happened in court.
“And after Officer Doucett asked for backup, what did you do?”
The prosecutor, a young guy fresh out of law school, was nervous. It was one of his first serious (multiple felony) cases and he was doing his best not to look like the neophyte he was. The bad guy was pleading guilty after a particularly disastrous (for him) preliminary hearing and I was testifying at the sentencing hearing before the judge. He plead guilty to two of four felony counts so he was looking at a maximum of only 20 instead of 50 years in the pen. And who knows? Maybe he’d be able to cry some crocodile tears, sloppily profess heartfelt remorse, and the judge would be suckered into giving him probation. Everyone knew what was up, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
“I was only a few blocks away, so I immediately drove to the apartment complex. While I was still on the way, Officer Doucett radioed for me to cover the north side of the building, so I parked at that side and approached on foot.”
“Did Officer Doucett tell you why he needed help and who was involved?”
“Yes Sir. He told me that Terry Wilson attacked a woman in the apartment, and wouldn’t let her out. He said that he was afraid he would harm the woman.”
“And did you know Terry Wilson?”
“How did you know Terry Wilson, Officer?”
“I had several past contacts with Mr. Wilson for a variety of reasons, including drunk driving, assault and domestic violence.”
“So you knew Mr. Wilson to be potentially violent?”
The defense attorney–a public defender–wasn’t going to object. He and I were friendly; he knew I wouldn’t go overboard to dump on his client. Besides, his client had already admitted the offense. The judge only needed to get a more immediate sense of what happened–that and read the pre-sentencing report from the probation office–before rendering a verdict. If the defense raised unnecessary, obstructive objections, it would only annoy the judge, and that wouldn’t help his client.
“What happened then, Officer?”
“I noticed that one of the windows was broken–someone broke it from the inside out–and I could hear people screaming inside. A woman, who I later learned was Anita McComb, came to the window and screamed something at me. I was able to make out ‘help,’ but not much else. She was crying, her head was bleeding, her blouse was torn, and she looked very upset. It appeared that someone suddenly pulled her back out of sight, but I couldn’t see them. It was dark inside the apartment.”
The apartment was one in a large development of low income, subsidized housing units. We had many, many calls there. I didn’t need to mention that. Everyone in the courtroom was familiar with the place. By “everybody” I mean the judge, the prosecutor, the defendant, his attorney, the court reporter, a deputy, me and two other attorneys waiting for their cases. There is seldom Hollywood-like drama in such cases in the real world.
“Did something cause you to go to the front of the apartment, Officer?”
“Yes Sir. I called Officer Doucett on the radio and told him what I saw. Within seconds, he called back and told me that he was kicking in the front door. I ran around to the front–the south side–of the building just in time to see Officer Doucett and Officer Bower break through the door. I entered the apartment just behind Officer Doucett with Officer Bower right behind me.”
“And what did you find inside the apartment?”
“The only visible light was coming from the upstairs, which was at the opposite side of the apartment. What I could see of the apartment was a mess. Chairs and a couch were overturned, and there were several fresh holes in the drywall. We were all stuck in a narrow entrance hallway, and Mr. Wilson was standing several feet in front of us, holding an aerosol can of some kind in one hand and a Bic-type lighter in the other. Ms. McComb was sitting on the floor several yards behind Mr. Wilson. She was bleeding profusely from a large cut above her left eyebrow, and she was dazed. She was moaning and crying.”
“And what time did you say this was again, Officer?”
“It was about 3:10 in the morning when we entered the apartment, Sir.”
“I see. You said that Mr. Wilson was holding an aerosol can and a lighter. Was this significant, even dangerous?”
The defense attorney tensed and began to rise from his chair. He appeared to be about to object to the “dangerous” part. I paused and everyone looked toward him anticipating some kind of dramatic movie moment when someone leaps up and identifies the real killer, but he thought better of it, relaxed and sat down. Everyone relaxed and I continued. “Yes Sir. Mr. Wilson was pointing the aerosol can at us, his finger on the spray top. The hand holding the lighter was at his side. He had an odd look on his face. He was grinning, but he looked angry. All he had to do was raise the lighter, light it, and hold it in front of the aerosol can to make a field expedient flame-thrower. We were packed tightly into the narrow hallway; we couldn’t easily retreat.”
“What happened then?”
“He screamed some sort of bizarre war cry and began to move toward us. I delivered a front thrust kick to his leading thigh. It rattled him and stopped him in his tracks. He didn’t see what I did (neither did my fellow officers), but it surprised him. I stopped him within arm’s length of us. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that if he ignited the aerosol can we would be in range. I drew my handgun and took a ready position and Officer Doucett ordered him to drop the can and lighter.”
“A ready position?”
“Yes Sir (I was always unfailingly polite to every attorney; it made defense lawyers look hostile and unsympathetic to judges and juries). My handgun was pointing downward, approximately at Mr. Wilson’s belt line and my finger was off the trigger. It allows me to see what he is doing, but to fire quickly and accurately if necessary.”
“And had the other officers also drawn their weapons?”
“Yes Sir, they had.” I didn’t mention that Bower, Doucett’s trainee, was very hyped up, and that the muzzle of his .40 S&W Glock, which was visibly shaking from his adrenaline-fueled death grip, was nearly against my left ear. If he fired, I’d lose an eardrum at the least. People just don’t realize how loud gunfire is in enclosed spaces. They’re used to the movies where heroes blast off thousands of rounds indoors without the slightest discomfort. Bower wasn’t experienced enough to know better–he was completely focused on what he could see of Wilson–and I couldn’t afford to take my attention off Wilson to calm him down. Things were moving very quickly.
“What happened then, Officer?”
“Officer Doucett kept ordering Mr. Wilson to drop the aerosol can and the lighter, but he didn’t. I locked eyes with him and as I did, I felt that he was trying to decide if he wanted to die. He knew if he raised the lighter the second he tried to light it, we’d fire. Again, we had no way to retreat or duck. His eyes hardened–he made a decision–and I put my finger on the trigger and began to take up the slack. Just before I had to bring the muzzle online and complete the pull, he suddenly dropped the lighter and aerosol can and raced for the back of the apartment, toward the stairs and the light.”
“How close were you to firing, Officer?” The prosecutor was doing a pretty good job, and he was fascinated by the story. The judge was leaning forward, listening intently too. The defendant–Wilson–was avoiding eye contact with me. He looked very nervous.
“It’s hard to say exactly. Within a few pounds of the seven pound trigger pull of my weapon, perhaps.”
“What happened then?”
“We immediately ran after Mr. Wilson. We had no idea if he was running for another weapon or trying to escape. He hit Ms. McComb on the head with his fist as he sprinted past her. She cried out and fell to the floor. Mr. Wilson sprinted up the steps and turned right into a bedroom with Officer Doucett just behind him. As I rounded the corner, I saw Mr. Wilson throw a punch that glanced off Officer’s Doucett’s forehead. Officer Doucett grabbed Mr. Wilson and punched him in the face several times. Mr. Wilson fell to the floor, but continued to struggle wildly. We all grabbed Mr. Wilson, and after a brief struggle, handcuffed him.”
“Was Officer Doucett injured?”
“I could see a darkening red spot on his forehead that was beginning to swell.”
“Was Mr. Wilson injured?”
“A little blood was trickling from his left nostril, but other than that, he appeared to be unhurt and he continued to struggle with and scream at us.”
“Did Mr. Wilson ever cooperate with you after that?”
“Not really Sir. He continued to scream and began to spit at us. Officer Doucett and Officer Bower held his arms and head, so he couldn’t spit on them and pretty much had to carry him down the stairs. He was screaming obscenities, kicking, and trying to wedge himself against the walls so we couldn’t remove him. When we reached the ground floor, he continued to struggle, and tried to kick Ms. McComb as we moved him past her, but Officer Doucett and Officer Bower pulled him away and he missed. When we reached the entrance hallway, he managed to kick several large holes in the walls, but we finally carried him outside.
“What happened then?” Wilson was avoiding making eye contact with anyone. He wasn’t exactly looking like a saint and he knew it.
“Officer Doucett and Officer Bower tried to put him in the back seat of their vehicle, but he would not sit down and braced his legs against the car body. We tried to calm him down and asked him to come with us, but he became even more angry and violent and narrowly missed biting Officer Bower on the ear.”
I didn’t mention that Bower made a rookie mistake and left his ear hanging in range of Wilson’s teeth. I saw what was going to happen and pushed Wilson’s head away at the last instant. If I hadn’t, Bower would have looked like he went a few rounds with Mike Tyson.
“What did you do then, Officer?”
“I put him in a vascular neck restraint and encouraged him to cooperate.”
“What is that?”
“It’s a technique that momentarily restricts blood flow to the brain by compressing the carotid arteries on either side of the neck. It causes no permanent harm, and causes temporary unconsciousness.”
“Did he cooperate then?”
“Yes Sir. Just before he passed out, he agreed to cooperate and we were able to seat him in Officer Doucette’s car. He was pretty woozy and didn’t act up again for awhile.”
“Did you speak with Ms. McComb?”
“Yes. Officer Doucette asked me to conduct the investigation while he took Mr. Wilson to jail.”
“What did you learn?”
I opened my mouth to speak…
“Uh, your honor, to save the court’s time, “ the defense attorney interrupted, “we would stipulate to the Officer’s report regarding the subsequent investigation.” Good move. He didn’t want me to say what McComb told me aloud. If I did, it might be more effective–more harmful to his client–than if the judge merely read it.
“Mr. Berman?” The judge asked the prosecutor for his take on the issue.
“Your honor, surely the officer can testify to what he saw and heard.”
The judge turned to me. “Officer, I’ve read your report. Does it fairly and completely represent your findings?” I’d appeared before him often before. He knew my reports were very detailed and complete and that I didn’t take liberties with the truth, but he was asking for the record to avoid being overturned on appeal.
“Yes your honor, it does,” I replied.
“Very well. The court is satisfied; move on Mr. Berman.”
“Yes your honor. Officer, is there anything else you’d like to add?”
“Just that I have only come so close to having to shoot another human being just a few times in my career. I don’t know why he decided to drop the aerosol can and lighter, but if he had not, I almost certainly would have fired within the next few fractions of a second. I don’t like having to make that choice.”
“Do you believe that he would have caused serious bodily harm or death to you or the other officers if he used the flame thrower?”
“I have no doubt of it.”
In fact, our evidence section tested the aerosol can and lighter to be sure they worked–they did–and bought an identical aerosol (it was a type of hair spray) and lighter and videotaped a fully suited and helmeted firefighter touching it off. It was a pretty spectacular sight, and the flame would have nailed us. We could have been burned or blinded–that’s “serious bodily harm” under the law and ample justification for shooting. After seeing the video in the preliminary hearing, the defense wisely decided they didn’t want a jury to see that in a trial and quickly did a plea bargain.
“And would you have killed Mr. Wilson if you had to fire?”
“I would certainly have stopped him.” The prosecutor didn’t know the game very well, but caught on quickly and dropped it. We always testify that we shoot only to stop, to stop the bad guy from doing what he was doing that gave us justification to shoot him in the first place, never to kill. If he dies as a result of being stopped, good for us/bad for him, but the point is stopping, not killing.
I sat in as Wilson did the obligatory performance. He was very, very, very sorry that he attacked and injured Ms. McComb, his live-in girlfriend. He was off the booze and drugs, found a job and was attending anger management classes. How many times had I heard those lame lines before at sentencing hearings? And oh yes, he desperately loved Ms. McComb (who got her stitches out only last week), who was again happily living with her one true love, Mr. Wilson. Ain’t love grand? Love is a many-splintered thing. He even managed to cry a little, but the tears were far more because he got caught than for his girlfriend.
The judge gave him ten years probation with a variety of completely unreasonable requirements he couldn’t help but break: Obeying the law and not drinking or using drugs among them. I suppose it was a reasonable sentence. He had a ton of misdemeanor convictions, but this was his first felony.
What happened to Wilson? Within a few months–to no one’s surprise–he violated probation by getting stoned, roaring drunk and beating up his one true love. He became a guest of the state for the next five years and change.
She was there, bruised, freshly stitched, weeping and desperately clutching as the Sheriff’s van left, heading east for the Pen, carrying Terry Wilson. Love can be desperate indeed.