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03.06.10

How Could He Silence Abuse?

Ever since Gov. Paterson's office became mired in a domestic abuse scandal, they've only dodged and obfuscated. Linda Fairstein asks, are they discouraging other victims from speaking up?

Sherr-Una Booker, the 40-year-old girlfriend of Governor David Paterson’s top aide, must have been planning to have a good time on Halloween. She and another woman were in the bedroom she shares with David Johnson in their Bronx apartment, dressing for a costume party, when her enraged lover charged into the room and attacked her. According to the police report Booker filed, the six-foot-seven Johnson grabbed her by the neck and began to choke her, ripping off her costume as she screamed for help.

Booker was courageous enough to file a police report, describing the terrifying assault and documenting the bruises on her arm, and requesting an order of protection from the court. (Johnson has denied the charges.) She knew how close Johnson and the governor have been for many years. Perhaps she thought Paterson would respond as he did when State Senator Hiram Monserrate was thrown out of office after being charged with slashing his lover’s face with a piece of broken glass in 2008. Paterson applauded the expulsion, saying that Monserrate’s crime "seemed like a classic case of a woman who was intimidated, who didn’t really understand what her independence could be and was victimized.”

Alert to Albany: punching a woman in the face is not a typical element of a lover’s quarrel.

But Booker didn’t get that response from the governor. He allegedly hand-picked some staffers to get to work on Booker, to make her charges go away, even though one of them had already witnessed Johnson’s penchant for interpersonal violence. Deneane Brown, another government employee, had seen Johnson smack his then-girlfriend in the face in front of Paterson’s Harlem office in 2001. When asked about that attack, Brown responded that, “to me, it was more of a lover’s spat.”

Lover’s spat? What’s the part of the penal law definitions that folks in Albany don’t seem to understand? Webster defines "spat" as a "brief quarrel, usually concerning petty matters." Since Brown didn’t seem to be much bothered by Johnson’s earlier violent behavior, the Governor must have known she was the perfect person for the job—getting rid of Sherr-Una Booker, with the full power of the State Police behind her. Once Brown heard that Johnson had put his hands around Booker’s throat, I figure she should have known the spat was way past the semantics of a disagreement about the choice of a woman’s Halloween costume.

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Alert to Albany: punching a woman in the face is not a typical element of a lover’s quarrel. Physically dragging a woman down a hallway after splitting open a gash near her eye which requires twenty stitches to close is not an accident. And in case you haven’t followed the research on domestic violence, putting your hands around your lover’s neck and choking her is not, as the Governor described it, “like breakups you hear about all the time.” Choking is one of the five top risk factors in predicting that the domestic offender is likely to escalate his violent behavior to homicide.

Those of us who have worked on the front lines of this issue for more than thirty years—advocates and law enforcement officials—have struggled to make the process more comfortable so that victims of these often-lethal crimes would choose to trust the system and come forward to testify. How shocking it is that the message from Albany—delivered so directly to Sherr-Una Booker from the state’s highest official and his goons—served to deny her a day in court and the full protection of the law.

Linda Fairstein is a bestselling crime novelist and the former chief prosecutor of the New York County District Attorney's Sex Crimes Unit. Her new novel, Hell Gate, is released this week by Dutton.