About Our Clinic
A Former Student's Perspective
There we were, in a small negotiation room at the back of the courtroom. Our client, whom I will call Sarah, was frightened because she knew that, in an hour or so, she was going to have to take the stand, face her ex-boyfriend, and tell the judge about how this man that she had lived with had beaten her and chased her with a butcher knife. My partner and I were reassuring Sarah that everything would be OK. But we were probably just as nervous as Sarah was. We had been in the Domestic Violence Clinic for less than a month and we where about to try our first case. We had worked very hard to prepare our case. We had practiced our opening and closing statements. We had practiced the direct examination of Sarah. We had marked the documents and photographs that we were going to submit as evidence. We knew all of our evidence rules so that we could make objections. We had prepared our responses to probable objections from the other side. Our clinic supervisor had closely scrutinized all of this work and we knew that our case was ready for trial. Now we just had to do it all in front of a judge.
Sarah had not lived in D.C. long. She had moved here with her husband only about a year before. Very soon afterward, she gave birth to a son and she and her husband were divorced. Sarah found herself in a strange city with a new baby, no money, no friends, and homeless. She and her baby had stayed in a homeless shelter for about a month.
That's where Sarah met the Respondent in our case. He was homeless, too. He seemed like a nice guy. Though neither of them had much, they figured that if they put their money together, they could afford the security deposit on an apartment. They had only lived in that apartment a little over a month when he turned violent. For two full days he terrorized Sarah in their new apartment. He took the phone and locked it in a trunk so that Sarah couldn't call for help. He beat her, choked her, and held a butcher knife to her throat. Then he sat and sharpened the butcher knife in front of Sarah.
When Sarah finally escaped from the apartment, she ran to a corner pay phone and called the police. The police came, arrested the Respondent and took him away in handcuffs. But apparently the police just drove around the corner and let him go. He returned to the apartment about 30 minutes later and came after Sarah with the butcher knife that he had spent so much time sharpening. An officer on foot patrol finally arrested the Respondent. The Respondent was charged with assaults on Sarah and her young son.
We walked into the courtroom the day of the trial expecting to get the Respondent to consent to the Civil Protection Order (CPO) ordering the Respondent to vacate the apartment and stay away from Sarah. The evidence against him was strong. But there was one problem: the Respondent wanted the apartment for himself. Sarah had nowhere to go. She already had two jobs and was barely able to support herself and her son. There was no way that she could afford to pay another security deposit. We had to go to trial.
The trial lasted two hours. Sarah was nervous on the stand, but the judge was patient and Melissa guided Sarah through the direct examination well. But then it was time for the man who had beaten and terrorized Sarah to cross- examine her (the Respondent did not have a lawyer so he cross examined Sarah himself). We had prepared Sarah for the cross-examination by instructing her not to look at the Respondent and to keep her eyes on us instead. She was to show no emotion and she was to wait two seconds after he asked each question before giving her response (the two seconds was to give us first-time litigators time to decide whether to object to the question). I was worried about whether Sarah would be able to do all of this on the stand. I knew that she was going to be overwhelmed with emotion during the cross-examination. But when it came time to face the music, Sarah was in complete control. I was astonished at her strength as I watched her calmly and deliberately answer each of his questions without ever taking her eyes off of us. It was at that point that I realized that no matter how much work it took to prepare a case like this for trial, it was the client who had the hard job.
Then it was time for the Respondent to put on his case. The judge did the direct examination of the Respondent. I listened intently and scribbled notes to myself about questions that I should ask the Respondent on cross-examination. But the Respondent was a particularly bad liar. Even the judge was showing signs of disbelief when the Respondent said that the photograph we presented of Sarah's huge black eye was the result of her clumsily walking into a door. By the end of the Respondent's testimony he had sealed his fate when he admitted to chasing Sarah with a butcher knife. He seemed to think that since he never actually stabbed her, there was no assault.
It meant that all of my preparation for cross- examination was for naught, but it was just as fun to stand up and say, "No questions, your Honor," when the judge gave me the floor to cross- examine the Respondent.
I then made my closing argument to the judge. It was pretty easy to argue that the judge should grant a CPO since the Respondent admitted one offense and there was clear evidence of several others. The hard part of the argument was convincing the judge that Sarah should get the apartment. Under D.C. law, a judge can order a batterer to vacate any apartment that is jointly owned, leased, or rented by the batterer and the victim. Though Sarah and the Respondent had gotten the apartment together, the lease was in the Respondent's name only. Our argument was that because they got the apartment together and because our client had paid more than half of the rent, the apartment was jointly leased or, at the very least, jointly rented.
The judge found that the apartment had been jointly leased for purposes of the statute because the lease stated that the apartment was to be occupied by two adults and one child. The Respondent was ordered to vacate the apartment and to stay away from Sarah.
As the judge gave his ruling, Sarah squeezed my hand so tight that I thought it was going to break off . . . and I knew exactly how she felt. For me and my partner, it took all of our control not to high-five each other right there at the Petitioner's table. But somehow we managed to politely say, "Thank you, your Honor," and walk out of the Courtroom before we went nuts. I may never have intended to be a litigator when I started the Clinic, but in one day I had become hooked. And the fun was just beginning . . . .
It's hard for me to sum up what the Georgetown Domestic Violence Clinic has done for me. It was an opportunity to be in a one-on-one, intense learning environment with experienced litigators. I feel like my entire legal education happened in that one semester. But more than that, the Clinic gave me my only real insight into what it is really like to be an attorney dealing with real clients who have real problems. Whether you want to help victims of domestic violence or escape the boredom of classes or just get the best legal education that you can imagine, the Georgetown Domestic Violence Clinic is a semester well spent.
Throughout Sylvia's three-year marriage, her husband Robert became increasingly jealous, possessive, and violent. He was verbally abusive, cursing at her, calling her names, and threatening her. Whenever she left their apartment, he accused her of seeing another man and frequently hid the car and house keys from her so that she couldn't leave. He began to follow her everywhere. One night, Sylvia came home to find her husband furious that she had gone out. Robert told her that if he saw her with another man, he would murder them both. He slammed Sylvia against the bed and held an iron over her head, threatening to kill her. Robert drank heavily and whenever he became intoxicated he forced Sylvia to have sex with him, pinning her down against the bed and pulling off her clothes.
Finally, Sylvia had had enough and decided to move out. As she began packing, her husband grabbed one of the suitcases and threw it at her. The couple's 1½ year-old son, Steven, witnessed this assault and began screaming and crying. The little boy became so upset that he began to vomit heavily. Robert then disconnected the phone and blocked the door of the apartment, preventing Sylvia from leaving. He continued to scream and threaten her. Finally, someone outside the building heard Sylvia's cries for help and called the police. Robert was arrested, and Sylvia and her son fled to her sister's apartment for safety.
The next morning, Sylvia went to the Domestic Violence Intake Center.
The Intake Counselor referred Sylvia to the Domestic Violence Clinic, which represented Sylvia in her contested CPO trial. After the Clinic won, the judge awarded Sylvia a comprehensive, permanent civil protection order, directing Robert not to assault or threaten her or her child, to stay away from them, and to vacate the family home. Robert was ordered to enroll in domestic violence counseling and drug treatment, and Sylvia was awarded custody of Steven and child support.
Bernice & Marie
Bernice and her 16 year-old daughter Marie had lived in fear over the last three years. Bernice's husband Sam, Marie's father, had been drinking heavily. Every night after work, and all day on the weekends, Sam sat in front of the television with a bottle of Jack Daniels. He demanded total silence in the house and would let neither Bernice nor Marie leave without his permission. Tension between Marie and Sam had escalated over the last year when Marie became more insistent on going out with her friends. Sam began withholding money from Marie so that she was not able to buy new clothes or school supplies. Any time Bernice tried to intervene on her daughter's behalf, Sam would force her into their bedroom and punch her repeatedly in the face. Next door, Marie could hear her father hitting her mother.
Sam was beating Bernice so often that she was frequently unable to go to work. She began to lose hearing in her left ear. She counseled Marie to stop pushing her father and to simply stay in her bedroom. Marie agreed, but became extremely depressed.
One Saturday Sam was stationed, as usual, in front of the television. Bernice sat quietly at the dining room table. Sam stood up and asked her what she was doing. She did not reply, fearing that any response would anger him. Without warning, Sam punched Bernice in the head. The blow knocked her off her chair and onto the floor. While she lay there, Sam kicked her repeatedly in the back and head, telling her that he would kill her. Hearing the noise, Marie came out of her room and ran down the stairs. She yelled to her father to stop and threatened to call the police. Marie stood in the threshold to the kitchen. Sam entered the room, shoving Marie through the door with him. He grabbed a carving knife and told Marie that he had had enough of her sassiness. Marie turned and fled to neighbor's house, where she called 911.
The police arrested Sam and told Bernice and Marie to go to the Domestic Violence Intake Center. At the Intake Center, Bernice and Marie spoke to an Intake Counselor who referred the case to the Domestic Violence Clinic.
In court, the student attorneys were able to negotiate a one-year Civil Protection Order that ordered Sam to vacate the residence, give Bernice use of the family car, and stay away and not contact Bernice or Marie until he had completed alcohol and domestic violence counseling. The order also awarded Bernice custody of Marie. The Clinic students were also able to obtain a child support order so that money for Marie was garnished on a monthly basis from her father's wages.