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Published: Sunday, 4/7/2013

COMMENTARY

Failure to protect: A review of Gerber tragedy is needed

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
BLADE COLUMNIST

There is something wrong, something terribly wrong, with a society that accepts the unacceptable.

There is something deeply amiss in a justice system that offers no justice for the innocent.

Declining to comment about the specifics of the murder of Kaitlin Gerber by an ex-boyfriend in Toledo on March 24, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said: “We as a society have not, frankly, figured out how to protect these victims.”

No, we haven’t.

Why?

One day later, an attorney for the man who chased Ms. Gerber in his car, killing her with four shots in the back, said this: “When somebody is intent on doing harm, there is not much the system can do to stop it.”

This seems to be what many people think.

Not much the system can do.

How about people? How about a prosecutor and a judge? How about us?

Maybe people failed.

It doesn’t mean the judge and the prosecutor are bad people or that they are not now heartsick.

But a life has to be bigger than a system, and a judge has an obligation to make the system work for the people who are victims.

“Nobody was objecting or asking that he [killer Jashua Perz] not be released,” said Sylvania Municipal Judge M. Scott Ramey about his decision to put Perz back on the street.

That’s just not true. Ms. Gerber was asking. She was asking for help over and over again. Maybe not in ways the system could easily hear. But that wasn’t her fault. When the judge released Perz, who had beaten her, threatened to kill her, and 20 times (not counting phone calls) violated a protective order, she told her mother, “They are not going to help me.”

“They” were people. The “system” is people.

Ms. Gerber predicted that Perz would never appear for his next court date. He would erupt first. If she could see that, why couldn’t the system see it and help her?

This is what is troubling about the people in the system: They did not move heaven and earth to save this young woman’s life. Perz did not outwit them. He simply had his way. They — people, a prosecutor, and a judge — failed to protect Kaitlin Gerber.

And this is what haunts today: The afterthought of the system is not, “This should not have happened. What can we do to be sure it never happens again?” No, it is, “Too bad, but what can you do?”

We can do a lot.

● State law: Massachusetts and California both have aggressive stalking laws that give judges extra tools. Washington state is considering raising the standard penalty for a felony stalking conviction from a maximum five years to 10. A law that makes stalking an aggravating factor would give a judge discretion in sentencing.

● Communication: England has a comprehensive stalker registry. In this nation, we have a series of patchwork registries. If the judge had known that Perz had once threatened to kill his own stepmother and that he had been under a protective order in Michigan that, presumably, would have made a big difference — Perz might still be in jail today.

● Police protection: Police visibility, including the police shadowing the stalker (which is now the approach to stalking in Nashville), has a proven chilling effect on a predator. Professor Michele Galietta, director of clinical training in the doctoral program in forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the single most effective thing we can do to prevent a stalker from taking violent action is to let him know he is being monitored.

● Specific safety and prevention strategies: Experts advise building a “safe room” that can be sealed off and locked down. In Tampa, battered women who meet certain criteria have a security system installed in their homes by the local police, including an emergency pendant which can be pressed to call for police assistance. Some criminologists also say, with certain reservations, that training in self-defense, including firearms, should be an option offered the stalking victim. If, on a few occasions, the stalker rather than the stalked wound up dead at the end of the car chase, a powerful signal would be sent.

● Expertise: Some big city prosecutors assign an assistant DA to stalking, spousal abuse, and domestic violence cases. That person specializes in these crimes and in helping the victims.

One thing virtually all the experts say: To do effective policing and prosecution of stalking you need two things — a way of communicating information about suspects that is system-wide and widely shared and a protocol for aiding stalking victims. The victim, the police, the prosecutors can’t just react. There has to be a plan.

● There is no “answer” to this problem, no panacea. We can never predict what all people will do. And we can’t create a “Brave New World” wherein no one will ever be hurt because a police state watches over us all 24/7.

But nether can we keep saying, “The system cannot protect you, there is really nothing we can do.”

That’s not good enough.

The belief that it is good enough is one reason that this young woman died. For even with additional tools, it is not clear that the Lucas County justice system would have done more, would have had her back.

The best available mechanism for self-examination and reform is for the attorney general to be invited in to investigate this tragedy. He should hold public hearings and call for expert testimony. He should do a fatality review.

Neil Websdale, a professor of criminal justice at Northern Arizona University–Flagstaff writes:

“Increasingly, criminal justice professionals and other practitioners involved in domestic violence cases are using a tool that may help reduce the many deaths due to intimate partner homicide. It’s a fatality review.

“Like the reviews conducted after an airplane crash, a fatality review helps determine what went wrong and what could have been done differently to prevent the tragedy.”

A fatality review is what is desperately needed in the Kaitlin Gerber case. Only the AG is in a position to conduct it. But Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates has to invite him.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, each year 1,500 Americans die at the hands of people they know.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that one in four women nationwide has experienced violence from an intimate partner.

The National Organization for Women reports that an average of three women in America die every day at the hands of domestic partners.

The leading cause of violent death in Toledo is not gang warfare or robberies gone bad. It is domestic violence.

Judges need to be educated. We all do. Learning to do solid risk assessment, says Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime, is where prevention begins. Most of the people Ms. Gerber depended upon for protection had no training in how to assess the risk she faced.

And yet help and training is available from many sources. One highly regarded one is “AEquitas,” which calls itself "the prosecutors’ resource on violence against women.” But these groups, like the AG, have to be invited.

Ms. Galietta says that she has found, in her work, that the most dangerous stalkers are generally not the obvious crazies who are obsessed with movie stars but boyfriends and husbands who cannot let go. Twenty letters from prison, she said, was a sure sign of a person who could not let go — a warning in neon.

This was not what you might call a passive tragedy — something that just happened, like an earthquake or a fire. This was a tragedy of human making. We should all be crying out for what justice is now available to Kaitlin Gerber: the ability to foresee and forestall future tragedies of this kind. We can’t prevent them all. But we can prevent some. We could have prevented this one.

Keith C. Burris is an associate editor of The Blade. Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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