Restraining orders against abusers only provide a false sense of security, experts say.
When states around the country passed anti-stalking legislation in the 1990s, the new laws were hailed as a long overdue crackdown on abusive spouses, obsessive exes and twisted psychopaths.
Today, prosecutors, police officers and those who are beaten have a more sobering assessment: The laws rarely work. If you believe in them too much, they can get you hurt.
“A restraining order is a false sense of security for those victims whose stalkers are really intent on hurting them,” Arlington (Va.) Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos said.
“It’s just a piece of paper,” she said a piece of paper, according to Ms. Stamos and other criminal justice experts, that is woefully inadequate when it comes to stopping a bullet, a knife or a determined killer.
And the laws passed to put stalkers in jail? Convicting stalkers before they kill is one of the most difficult things a prosecutor can do. The proof needed is almost the same as a murder case, prosecutors say.
Gunned down in kitchen
Janice Michelle Lancaster, of Faulkner, Md., had a protective order. Only five days before her death on Jan. 3, the Charles County District Court officially notified her 36-year-old estranged husband a man who was her high school sweetheart he was not to come near her.
The four-page document was all she was armed with when James Lancaster crept into her home on Popes Creek Road at 6 a.m. and hunted her down with a loaded shotgun.
Mrs. Lancaster, 34, was one of 350,000 people across the country who obtain protective orders each year, and one of 9,000 who were granted such an order last year from Maryland’s district courts.
“I do not want him around me,” Mrs. Lancaster wrote of her estranged husband in her Dec. 20 application for court protection. “I am afraid of him since he has threatened to kill me in front of our children.”
Lancaster did just that. He cornered her in the kitchen, raised the shotgun and fired a fatal round into her chest, in full view of the couple’s 17-year-old daughter. Then he went out on the porch and killed himself.
“When the daughter came out of the house crying, we knew right there Steve had shot Janice,” said one neighbor, shaking her head as she looked at the Lancaster home. “We were just shocked, just shocked that Steve could actually do something like this.”
Even in death Mrs. Lancaster wasn’t able to get away from him. They were buried, side by side, in an old church cemetery on a hilltop overlooking the Potomac River in Chapel Point, Md.
A legislative fad
The laws that went on the books in the early 1990s, according to law-enforcement officials, are often little more than legal placebos, designed to make frightened people feel safer and create headlines for opportunistic politicians.
But the crackdown, according to prosecutor Stamos and others, never materialized for the most determined and most dangerous stalkers.
“There’s no silver bullet. Those types of stalkers are criminals who have an incredible sense of who they are, and they feel they have the right to control someone else’s life,” Ms. Stamos said.
And the statistics indicate that, despite the new laws, the stalkers have the upper hand.
According to a 1997 Justice Department study, three out of every four protection orders issued across the country each year will be routinely violated at some point by a jilted lover, an angry ex-husband or an obsessed admirer.
But only a small fraction of those violators will ever be punished.
In Virginia, for example, more than 7,200 protective orders have been authorized by the state’s juvenile and domestic relations courts since July 1997. Yet in Northern Virginia alone from Loudoun and Prince William in the west to Fairfax and Arlington in the east only 15 persons were charged with violating protective orders and only five were convicted, according to Virginia Supreme Court records.
In the Maryland suburbs, only 93 persons were held in contempt of the 9,121 protective orders issued from 1997 to 1999, according to court records.
Experts say the huge number of violations reported and the meager handful of convictions each year show how difficult the laws which carry jail terms of up to five years in some cases are to enforce.
Experts say police, who should enforce the orders, and the judges who issue them, are to blame for that.
Most police officers see the orders as vaguely written warnings. Some of them believe that unless they witness a violation, they don’t think there is much they can do or they don’t want to get involved, said Nancy Burnett, a New York lawyer who specializes in domestic violence cases.
“Some of them believe that if they don’t have physical evidence of a violation they’ll let it go,” Ms. Burnett said. “They’ll claim that they have to catch them on the spot.”
When a New Hampshire judge issues a protective order, the law requires police to drive to the harasser’s house and confiscate any guns or deadly weapons they find.
Here, police officers are left on their own. Most don’t understand what protective orders are and what arrest powers they have when they don’t actually witness a violation, but only have the word of the victim.
“[Local] judges need to write clear orders, so cops can understand when an order has been violated,” said Ruth Micklem, co-director of Virginians Against Domestic Violence.
Victims become frustrated, too. Sometimes, they get discouraged and don’t want to go through the court process of hiring a lawyer, filling out more paperwork and missing at least two or three days of work to attend hearings to prosecute a violation.
“The process alone can be overwhelming and intimidating to someone who is already struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, which many of these victims who are domestic violence cases suffer,” Ms. Burnett explained. “It’s like a vicious cycle.”
Hard to convict
Anti-stalking laws in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia make it illegal for anyone to repeatedly engage in conduct that puts another person in “reasonable” fear of death or bodily injury. Such behavior is a misdemeanor that is punishable up to a year in prison in Virginia and the District, and up to five years in Maryland.
But to use the laws, prosecutors have to prove with tapes or eyewitnesses that the stalker made the victim feel a high degree of fright and that the stalker intended to harm the victim.
“That’s the problem,” Ms. Stamos said. “[The law] is great to have, but the times [you can use it] are few. It’s a legitimate effort to deal with situations but very difficult to prosecute because of the high burden of proof.”
Montgomery County, Md.’s top prosecutor, State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler, agreed: The laws and protective orders are “important to have because the victim can call police, who can come and remove the perpetrator from the premises and put them in jail,” he said.
“They give teeth to law enforcement,” Mr. Gansler explained.
Yet the laws and court orders have all the bite of a paper tiger. Stalkers rarely are brought to trial or convicted, court records show. Even police have learned not to press stalking charges but rather to charge stalkers with easier-to-prove crimes like trespassing.
“Stalking is a very difficult thing to show,” Mr. Gansler said. “You must prove that the course of conduct is persistent, and that the intent is malicious. Unless a stalker writes his or her intentions down on a piece of paper, it’s incredibly difficult to show the high level of intent.”
Failure surprises lawmakers
This comes as a surprise to state Delegate Pauline Menes, a Prince George’s County, Md. Democrat who co-sponsored the anti-stalking bill in Maryland before it became law in 1993. Mrs. Menes said she had “no idea” prosecutors have a difficult time convicting stalkers in court under the current law.
“I hadn’t heard anything from any prosecutors, so I just assumed it was working well,” said Mrs. Menes, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “None of the prosecutors have come in to share their experiences or to tell us that the standard is too high and that the language should be written differently. They know we’re here every year.”
Still, legislators and victims’ rights advocates believe having a law in place or getting a protective order is better than not having one at all.
“I certainly like to think the law has been effective,” said Virginia state Sen. Linda T. “Toddy” Puller, a Mount Vernon, Va. Democrat who voted in support of the law in 1992. “Any tool that we can give our victims is good.”
About 600,000 or 60 percent of the 1 million women who are stalked each year are pursued by someone they know: spouses, former spouses, live-in partners or men they have dated once or twice.
Seventy percent of the estimated 400,000 men who are stalked each year are pursued by infatuated females, ex-girlfriends and their friends. Another 10 percent are stalked by other men, according to the National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the Justice Department.
Mean, or just moonstruck?
Start worrying, experts say, when flowers arrive at the office day after day. Or a bombardment of phone calls, or e-mail, begins. Or when the lovesick stalker starts driving by the house to see what the target is doing.
“They’re like alcoholics,” Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said. “Until they decide to stop their own behavior, no one can tell them stop.”
Prosecutors and police officials say victims need to take measures to protect themselves from their stalkers. Some officials say victims should change their work schedules and telephone numbers, or install security systems or move. They should always document each time they are threatened or bothered.
“It helps to be cautious,” Fairfax County police Lt. Amy Lubas said. “You don’t know what’s in their mind right now and what could be in their mind later.”
Jealousy is not against the law. Nor is puppy love or sophomoric infatuation. But those emotions can create an ache that leads to trouble.
Protective orders and anti-stalking laws help in cases where the would-be stalker is annoying but basically law-abiding, said Dorothy J. Lennig, legal clinic director with the House of Ruth, a Maryland advocacy group for domestic-violence victims.
“They’ll protect you from those guys who won’t end a relationship, who just want to be jerks or pains in the neck,” Mr. Horan said.
“But there are a lot of guys out there who are not law-abiding, so restraining orders aren’t so successful. It’s really because these guys truly are social misfits,” he said.
Reid Meloy, a forensic consultant for prosecutors in the trial of Robert Dewey Hoskins, who was convicted of stalking pop singer Madonna in 1996, agreed: “[Restraining orders] really don’t affect the very delusional. These people don’t attach any meaning to it or are angry enough [over a breakup or a rejection] that they will do anything no matter what.”
Celebrities attract a different kind of stalker the complete stranger.
Ordinary people attract the kind most likely to kill or maim loved ones or former boyfriends or girlfriends. And nothing complicates the relationship between stalker and victim more than sex, according to a study of 50 stalking cases conducted by the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London.
“The risk is much greater in stalkers [who] have had sexual intimacy with their victims,” wrote psychiatrist David James of the London school.
Only about 2 percent of stalkers kill their victims, said Mr. Meloy, author of “The Psychology of Stalking.”
“It’s a twisted attempt to romantically link themselves to their victim forever,” he said.
Stalker turns killer
James Lancaster became one of the 2 percent in January when he fatally shot his wife of 13 years and then killed himself.
Four months after the murder-suicide, neighbors along the quiet and winding Popes Creek Road, where the Lancasters’ home overlooks a cornfield, are still trying to understand what happened to a family that seemed normal and happy.
“Mr. Lancaster used to wave and smile every time we saw him two years ago,” said one next-door neighbor, who did not want to be identified for this article. “But in late 1998, he changed. He started being ugly with her. And that’s when all the waving and smiling stopped.”
Janice and James Lancaster were not rich. They lived in a tiny wooden shack. The screen door is now shattered. A wooden wind chime still hangs on the front door that opens to the carpeted and tarp-covered porch where neighbors say Lancaster pulled the trigger on himself. In a knothole in a tree facing the porch, someone stuck a small silver statue depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.
Mrs. Lancaster’s co-workers at the Loyola Retreat House, a Jesuit prayer retreat where she was a cook, said her marriage had been crumbling for about a year and was headed toward divorce.
“She wasn’t very happy,” said the Rev. Stephen Garrity, a co-worker who said a final prayer before the Lancasters’ caskets were lowered into the ground. “Janice always tried to put the best face on. She would always tell me she was taking it one day at a time.”
Trying to get away
Mrs. Lancaster filed for divorce last August, after seeking a protective order twice in the past year.
She first filed for a temporary protective order against her husband in February 1999, when he tried to run her car off the road three months after attacking her while she protected her daughter from him, according to a copy of a petition for a protective order filed in Charles County Circuit Court.
“He pushed me,” Mrs. Lancaster wrote Nov. 14, 1998, after the first attack occurred. “[He rammed] my head into a picture. The glass cut me in my head. I had bruises on my arm. My son was hiding outside.”
She later withdrew the request. She had second thoughts, as sometimes happens to those asking for protection.
Charles County sheriff’s deputies charged Lancaster with assaulting his wife in May, to which he pleaded guilty in October. He was sentenced to five days in jail and placed on 18 months of unsupervised probation. The judge ordered Lancaster to have no contact with his wife.
But Lancaster attacked her twice more before killing her. After he attacked her the first time, he wrote his wife a three-page letter, begging her to talk to him.
The letter, written in rough English, is part of the court file.
“I don’t have anything left so don’t keep pushing me to the limit ‘cause I’m going to give way one day,” Lancaster wrote. “So be very careful with me. I’m right on the edge.
“Time is getting short for me and you so let’s talk or write back to me cause a lot of things is going to happen if you don’t talk to me,” he continued. “I’m ready to go any time, to lay my body to rest. And me is not going to be only one.”
Court order never served
Mrs. Lancaster knew she was in danger and prepared for the worst. Months before her death, she had a will drawn up and pinned a note to a dress and a pair of gloves she wanted to be buried in, the next-door neighbor said.
“Janice even wrote in the note she wanted to be buried with shoes on her feet because she didn’t want her feet to get cold,” the woman recalled.
When Lancaster attacked her a second time, on Dec. 20, she was frightened enough to obtain a protective order against her estranged husband and made it stick.
The next day, a Charles County judge signed a bench warrant for Lancaster’s arrest after prosecutors filed charges that he was harassing his wife.
The bench warrant sat there for three days, untouched. Within a week, Janice Lancaster was dead.
“She cried out for help and nobody helped her,” the neighbor said. “The system let her down. She handled the situation as best she could.”