New Jersey's 39th Legislative District

Senator Gerald Cardinale

Senator Gerald Cardinale

Editorial: Ensuring Justice for Victims of Domestic Violence

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The following editorial by Senator Gerry Cardinale (R-39) on protecting victims of domestic violence was published by The Record on January 22, 2018:

As the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’ve interviewed thousands of judges, prosecutors, and others involved in New Jersey’s criminal justice system, and heard countless hours of testimony.

Sen. Gerry Cardinale writes about why we must help women to escape from abusive relationships, ensure that abuse can be identified and reported by law enforcement, and prevent overzealous prosecutors from blaming and imprisoning victims of domestic violence. (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve listened to citizens who have come before us to raise concerns about our legal process, and worked with other legislators, judges, attorneys, and advocates to ensure that anyone who touches our court system in any way gets a fair shake.

Despite our best efforts, many victims of domestic violence continue to face an uphill battle in getting the justice they deserve.

Some of that has to do with the dynamics of abuse.

Too often, instances of domestic violence are never reported. That’s a common refrain that’s been relayed to me time and again by concerned police officers who routinely respond to disturbance calls.

They show up, nobody will say that anything is wrong, and they are forced to leave.

Sometimes it’s embarrassment that prevents a woman from reporting acts of violence against them by a partner or spouse. Often, though, it’s the fear that speaking up will provoke even greater abuse.

That leads to a cycle of abuse that sometimes doesn’t end, or doesn’t end well.

Some women, like Lisa Pyatt, literally have to fight for their lives. In Lisa’s case, she was compelled to use lethal force to protect herself from her abuser.

As a result of her self-defense, Lisa was rewarded with murder charges and a 40-year prison sentence.

A few years ago, I was contacted by Sandra Ramos, Founder and Executive Director of an organization called Strengthen Our Sisters, to review Lisa’s case and support her application for clemency.

I spent a lot of time digging into the details of the case and was concerned by what I found.

We often hear that women are trapped by finances in violent relationships. They simply can’t afford to go anywhere else.

When Lisa was criminally charged for fighting back, she, like many women who have suffered abuse, didn’t have the means to hire competent attorneys.

Her defenders simply weren’t up to the task. Two members of her legal team have since been disbarred, and one is in jail.

There were other problems as well.

Pictures documenting Lisa’s physical abuse mysteriously disappeared, and prosecutors fought to prevent emergency room nurses from testifying about the wounds on Lisa that they witnessed and treated.

I’ve read the recent remarks of a prosecutor who helped convict Lisa. He claims that she was not a victim of abuse and that her conviction was well justified. I don’t think his statements are credible.

I’ve spent years reviewing the case myself. It’s clear that Lisa Pyatt was a victim of domestic abuse who was prosecuted, convicted, and jailed for having the courage to fight for her life when it was threatened.

That leads to the following question. Were the prosecutors in this case more interested in securing a conviction than justice?

That’s a challenge that I believe too many women must face.

The families of abusers often refuse to admit that a loved one was capable of hurting someone else. They push for prosecution claiming the victim was actually the aggressor.

Prosecutors too often are willing to oblige in the race for headlines and to pad their conviction stats. Women like Lisa Pyatt end up paying the price.

Ultimately, after a very long review of the facts of her case, I did support the clemency application of Ms. Pyatt and urged then Gov. Chris Christie to consider it as well.

I was pleased he and his team of lawyers took the time to thoroughly review the case and agreed that commuting her sentence was justified.

At the time of her release a few days ago, Lisa had served 24 years of a 30-year minimum sentence for the crime of defending herself.

While we finally succeeded in righting a wrong in this one case, many other instances of injustice remain unrectified.

There remain too many women who suffer abuse at the hands of a loved one, and there surely are other victims who face similar challenges within our justice system.

We need to help women to escape from abusive relationships, ensure that abuse can be identified and reported by law enforcement, and prevent overzealous prosecutors from blaming and imprisoning victims.

It may be a tall order to accomplish all of that, but we must continue working to protect and ensure justice for those who have suffered domestic violence in New Jersey.

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