Back in the day, the first stop for any judge newly assigned to a domestic violence part, including this one, was a field trip to the Brooklyn courtroom of state Supreme Court Justice John Michael Leventhal. In 1996, Leventhal was named presiding judge of the nation’s first felony domestic violence court. In that role, he was the embodiment of intelligence, compassion and common sense in a twilight zone where mostly male abusers controlled their female victims through physical violence and emotional terror. The perpetrators rarely expected to be held accountable, and they rarely were, even by the wives and girlfriends they had shot, stabbed, beaten or choked. Until they met Leventhal. He showed them, the legal system and the public what a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence looked like. With his elevation to the Appellate Division in 2008, that first-hand lesson, unfortunately, is no longer available. But with the publication of Leventhal’s new book, “My Partner, My Enemy: An Unflinching View of Domestic Violence and New Ways to Protect Victims,” his wisdom on the subject is available to a new generation of domestic violence judges and practitioners. And wise he is.
This interesting and informative book begins with the hard, cold facts of domestic violence that continue to shock: 4 million incidents of intimate partner violence reported by women each year; leading cause of injury to women in the United States between the ages of 15 and 44; nearly half of all women murdered in New York City are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. And yet, it is a crime that remains underreported, particularly by gay, transgendered and minority victims.
Although the book contains a comprehensive bibliography and footnotes, what sets it apart from a standard textbook or practice manual is that the author shares with the readers the human stories he heard inside his courtroom for years. Old phrases associated with love, like “till death do us part,” take on sinister new meanings after reading this book.
The genesis of Leventhal’s assignment to the domestic violence court that ultimately led to his interest in writing “My Partner, My Enemy” was a tragedy that began when another judge lowered the bail of a man charged with assaulting his girlfriend. That defendant made bail and within weeks shot and killed her and turned the gun on himself. There was an uproar and elected officials called for the judge’s removal. Following on the acquittal of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend, Ron Goldman, the time was right for a court focused on intimate partner violence. The Brooklyn Domestic Violence Court was born.
Leventhal extols the virtues of what came to be known as a problem solving court. “Recycling the same human beings with the same problems through courts—it’s not good for us, it’s not good for the parties, and it’s surely not good for society,” he writes. He tells colorful stories about life in the trenches, recounting his own early professional experience when as a defense lawyer in the mid-1980s he represented a single mother accused of shooting her abusive ex-boyfriend. Years before New York recognized the battered women’s syndrome defense, or the penal law mandated arrest for domestic violence offenders—both of which might have helped his client—the best then-attorney Leventhal could do was negotiate a reduced charge and a five-year probationary sentence. The situation haunted him. “I came through this episode of my professional life with a new awareness that I would not soon forget,” he writes.
That awareness soon came to good use. In chapters that read like episodes of the TV true crime shows “48 Hours” and “Dateline,” Leventhal describes violence that knows no bounds. For the most part, names are changed to protect the privacy of the litigants, but the facts, taken mostly from the justice’s old cases, are true. In each, a lesson lurks for the legal community: Prosecutors need to be patient with reluctant and recanting complainants; judges need to take domestic violence cases seriously; defense lawyers need to be creative in their representation of batterers and victim’s advocates need to give the survivors a voice. But his overarching message is that domestic violence is never the victim’s fault.
The details in these stories initially seem overwhelming, leading a reader to think at first blush that the book needs tighter editing. But those thoughts quickly pass because it is the details of repeated battering incidents, with their escalating and sickening level of violence that gives the book its strength. Among the victims are wives, a girlfriend forced into prostitution, an elderly mother abused by her son and same-sex couples. Each chapter is devoted to one victim or perpetrator’s story i.e., “Boris the Bully” (who chased his victim across two continents), and imbedded in each is Leventhal’s own Monday-morning quarterbacking. “The emergency room doctor should have examined Nina alone, in private and out of earshot of Boris, so that there would have been a chance that Nina would have related the true cause of her injuries.” Later in the book, the chapter “Deadly Vignettes,” recounts shorter case studies that overwhelm with tales of relentless violence and cruelty in the name of some sick view of love. Coming one after another, the reader is left in awe at how Leventhal presided with equanimity over this wretched volume of abuse year after year.
One of the most poignant chapters is about Leventhal’s first trial in the new domestic violence part; involving a French Guyanese couple he calls “Desmond and Enid.” The spiraling violence endured by Enid might have been stopped, he writes, had the domestic violence court existed during the nascent stages of their relationship. He could have ordered Desmond into a batterer’s program and brought him back to court every three weeks for judicial monitoring as a condition of bail. “Just maybe, we could have kept her out of harm’s way.”
Instead, what happened was horrifying. Desmond had a common-law wife and children, and kept Enid on the side. When Enid protested, she suffered savage beatings. He broke her nose in a public parking lot and refused to allow her to seek medical attention. Enid was undocumented, which Leventhal theorizes might have led her to accept Desmond’s abuse. He forced her to have sex and smashed a bottle into her face, resulting in 17 stitches and permanent scarring, for which he was arrested. After Desmond was released on bail, he continued to contact Enid, despite an order of protection in her favor. When Enid refused to drop the charges he pumped three bullets into her head and one into her stomach. She survived, although the shooting left her blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and suffering a perforated colon. Convicted after trial, Desmond was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in jail. He got off easily by comparison; Enid’s injuries would remain with her for the rest of her life.
There are other stories, equally harrowing. “Deadly Dave” is a chapter about—shockingly—an instructor in a domestic violence batterer’s program who worked in Leventhal’s own court who executed his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend on a midtown Manhattan street and later shot himself. Leventhal writes: “It shook my world and my basic notions about domestic violence to the very core. I will never again look at the domestic violence universe the same way.” After reading this excellent book, neither will you.