October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Friends and Family Need to Get Involved to Stop the Cycle of Abuse, Save a Life
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
This past August Christiana “Tina” Guerra Lewis became another statistic; a victim of a social epidemic far more deadly than the HINI virus. The night before her death, according to the Houston Chronicle, Lewis asked her mother to go with her the next day to get a restraining order against R.P., a man with a lengthy criminal record with at least two dozen arrests including an assault on a family member and injuring a child.
Lewis did not live to see the next day. She became one of the every three women murdered each day in this country by their spouses or intimate partners, according to a recent Chronicle op-ed article by Rebecca L. White, president and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, and James L. Postl, former CEO of Pennzoil Quaker State. Police charged that R.P. stabbed Lewis numerous times in the neck in her trailer residence in Channelview.
R.P. has a long history of domestic violence. He was committed to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on at least four occasions, the last commitment being for an assault on a family member. He came from a family environment of domestic violence. In 2000 his mother was convicted of killing her live-in boyfriend by dropping a 40-lb cinder block on his head.
While the Lewis family told the Chronicle that Lewis was probably unaware of R.P’s extensive criminal record and history of domestic violence, she was aware of his propensity for violence. The Chronicle reported that four days before R.P killed her, he broke into Lewis’ residence, beat her up, raped her, and stole money from her. He warned her not to call the police, threatening to kill her family if she did. She didn’t. She even refused to go to the hospital for treatment, telling a sister: “For what? They’re not going to do anything.”
The Lewis family, who had to place a scarf around their daughter’s neck during funeral home viewing so her children would not see the fatal wounds, was naturally upset when they learned about R.P’s criminal history. They charged that the system failed to protect Lewis.
“It outrages me that the damn authorities let him walk the streets to do it over and over and over again,” Judy Ann Holland, Lewis’ mother, told the Chronicle. “I feel if they had done their job at that time and kept him in the system, my daughter wouldn’t be dead now.”
Holland’s criticism was somewhat misdirected. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice had no choice but to release R.P each time he completed his prison term. Their criticism of the justice system—if any must be assessed—lies not the TDCJ but with the prosecutors who repeatedly permitted R.P to benefit from plea deals that either allowed him to plead to reduced charges or to receive short prison terms in exchange for his guilty pleas. Each case brought against R.P and the prosecutorial decisions made in them would have to be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine if any criticism should be levied because of any deals made with the violent offender.
Plea bargains are an integral component of the nation’s legal system. Approximately 90 percent of all criminal defendants plead guilty, the majority of which involve some sort of plea deal. The legal system would collapse should all criminal defendants insist upon a trial by jury. In fact, lenient plea bargains for first-time or even non-violent repeat offenders make good sense for many reasons.
Prosecutors are often the first to assail the system with criticism when repeat violent offenders, such as Phillip Garrido, re-offend when more often than not it was prosecutors who made the “deals” that allowed for an early release in these cases.
That appears to be what happened in the R.P case. He was released from the TDCJ last May after completing a two-year sentence. The natural question arises: how could an offender, who had three prior stints in prison (including convictions for domestic violence, assault and injury to a child) and who compiled 25 criminal charges in Harris County alone between 1991 and 2007, receive a two-year sentence for a second domestic violence offense, an offense that was a 3rd degree felony carrying a range of punishment of 2-10 years, without any enhancement for the previous felony convictions?
That answer to that question certainly invites criticism, especially when non-violent and repeat drug offenders are continually and senselessly locked up in over crowded jails, taking up space that could be better served for these violent repeat offenders.
But what about his individual responsibility? Lewis knew she had taken up with a violent man. There were certainly cues to his violent tendencies long before he raped and beat her four days before he killed her. Why didn’t she leave him? Why didn’t she report him to the police? And if she spoke to family members about any concerns she may have had for her personal safety, why didn’t the family member contact the police?
In an October 12, 2009 blog posted on a Chronicle web page, MomHouston, titled “What Reflection Do You See In The Drama Mirror,” the writer had this to say: “One of the fundamental traps that women fall into with abusive men is to absolve the abuser of their bad behavior with qualifications, excuses and wishful thinking. I say: ‘Don’t try to make excuses for why the bed sheets are dirty! Buy new sheets, clean them, or sleep on dirty sheets, but don’t qualify why you put up with sleeping on dirty sheets! That is how abusive relationships should be looked upon—sleeping on dirty sheets!
“When a man, when anyone in fact, displays disproportionate anger and is abusive , whether that is physically or verbally, it is a massive red flag that says that it is time to get out. This is not the type of behavior that you can fix and it deals a fatal blow to your relationship. His behavior is highly disrespectful, aggressive, and an attack on your self-esteem and character. You don’t ‘make’ him mad—he chooses to respond to you by getting mad—he could always choose another route. WOMEN quite often don’t get that point! Many times money, looks or a combination of both will ause them to deal with being abused and degraded, other times it can be issues of insecurity etc.”
The nation’s crime victims movement, and the social mindset it has created since its inception in California in the 1970s, frowns upon any assumption that an individual may have been even slightly responsible for her/his victimization. But the reality is that many people suffer criminal victimization, or some lesser form of social victimization, because of their own irresponsible behavior.
Granted, many women living in the underbelly of society, especially illegal immigrants and those stricken with poverty, do not have a lot of options when faced with abusive relationships. They often cannot, for various reasons, turn to the criminal justice system for assistance, and when they do, many often encounter indifference from the very law enforcement community in place to protect them. And if these women should take matters into their own hands by killing the abuser, the justice system will not offer them understanding and compassion.
Robin R.P’s mother, Carolyn Bailey, received a 50-year prison term after she dropped the cinder block on Curtis Maserang’s head. The record does not indicate why she committed the killing, but absent any traditional greed-related motive, it could reasonably be assumed she got fed up with being abused by him and took matters into her own hands. One man is killed each day in this country by a spouse or a girlfriend, and in many of these cases the woman killed the man because he was abusing her. Some studies have indicated that women who kill men in domestic violence situations are actually punished more severely with harsher prison sentences and longer stays in prison.
Lewis was not part of society’s underbelly. She was the mother of three daughters and worked in medical advertising. If she was in fact hopelessly afraid of R.P, she or any member of her family could have contacted a group like the Houston Area Women’s Center for help. Tragically, she had viable options, but for whatever reason, she did not to take advantage of them.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Houston Area Women’s Center is making a concerted effort to promote community awareness about cases like Christina Lewis before it’s too late. In their op-ed piece, White and Postl challenged the community “look past our own prejudices, misgivings, personal fears and misconceptions about domestic violence.
“That includes addressing one of the most tragic misconceptions of all—too many people believe there is nothing that any one person can do to help stop the cycle of violence. In fact, it only takes one person to help transform a domestic violence victim into a domestic violence survivor. Oftentimes, we find that the more people learn about domestic violence, the more they want to make a difference.”
And that is truly the key to stopping the cycle of domestic violence. Christina Lewis would probably be alive today had she, her sister or another of her family member insisted that she go to the hospital and report the rape R.P committed against her four days before he killed her. The sister (and probably other family members as well) knew she had been beaten, raped, and robbed yet did not report this horrific crime to the police. The sister felt compelled to accepted Tina’s excuse: “For what? They’re not going to do anything.”
The family can criticize the justice system for its failings but, unfortunately, they failed Christina as well. As White and Postl indicated, one member of Lewis’ family calling the police would have made a difference. R.P would have been arrested and hauled off to jail where he could not have hurt Christina Lewis. And, yes, as hard as it is to say, Christina Lewis herself contributed to her own demise by not calling the police after R.P beat, raped, and robbed her. This is the real problem with fighting domestic violence. It is often seen differently from other violent crime. Friends and family often see as a personal matter, someone else’s business, not to be interfered with, not the violent crime it really is.
We can only hope the this tragic example will force all of us to take domestic abuse seriously and spur us to get involved and do something if a friend or family member is in trouble. This is the only good that can come of this terrible case.
O’Hare, Peggy, “Suspect In Woman’s Killing Has 20 Arrests on Record,” Houston Chronicle, August 22, 2009