In Death, A Battered Woman Could Help The Living

An all-too-common denouement: a battered woman starkly in fear for her life is murdered by her estranged but ferociously menacing husband. This time, however, the death in California has set off a federal court battle with national implications.

Maria Teresa Macias's photo atop her casket

The murder of Maria Teresa Macias was a death foretold. Macias knew her estranged husband wanted her dead. Friends and relatives overheard his threats to kill her. Even the local police in California's wine country of northern Sonoma County were aware of his openly deadly intentions-but they did little or nothing to stop him.

Now, a wrongful death lawsuit against her county's sheriff's office has been permitted to go to trial by a widely influential federal appeals court.

As a result, the Macias case could prove to be a test case of whether police can be held legally accountable for their response, or lack of response, to violent crimes against women. It could also test whether women, especially battered women, are entitled to diligent and non-discriminatory policing services.

Macias had complained to police 22 times during the year and a half before her death, according to the documentation gathered by retired San Diego Police Sgt. Anne O'Dell, a domestic violence expert assisting in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Macias family against the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.

In the 18 months leading up to her death, Avelino Macias sexually abused his wife, broke into her home, terrorized and stalked her, documents indicate. Despite repeated violations of a restraining order, police failed to arrest him. Aware of the violence, Maria Teresa's mother traveled from Mexico to try to protect her daughter.

On April 15, 1996, Avelino Macias followed his wife to her place of work, pulled a gun and killed her at point-blank range. He then shot his mother-in-law in the leg as she fled to call 911. He then turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger, ending his own life.

The lawsuit in this case alleges the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department failed to uphold California's domestic violence laws because it discriminated against Macias both as a woman and as an Hispanic, and by doing so, denied her the equal protection of the law to which all citizens are entitled.

The lawsuit gained impetus in July when a federal appeals court reversed a lower court decision dismissing the case. Those who advocate better police protection for battered women have taken heart from the ruling, although it is not yet the final word. The case was returned to a lower court with instructions to either settle or proceed to trial and possibly make law. A decision is awaited.

“Throughout history and right into the present day, many in law enforcement have regularly dumped on, ignored or simply not wanted to deal seriously with cases of rape and domestic violence,” said Marie De Santis, director of the Women's Justice Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. “These men didn't go into law enforcement to listen to women's problems and then, for God's sake, to take the woman's side and arrest someone who looks like them in the mirror when they are shaving in the morning.” De Santis and Tanya Brannan of the Santa Rosa-based Purple Berets, a self-described “grassroots, in-your-face” activist group for women, have turned the Macias murder into a cause.

They sought out civil rights attorney Dennis Cunningham of San Francisco and helped launch the $15 million lawsuit.

Although the U.S. Supreme court has held that nothing compels police to uphold the law on a given case, Cunningham said, officers cannot fail to act because of a policy of discrimination. This case, Cunningham added, will break new ground if the jury finds such a policy existed in Sonoma County-and Maria Teresa Macias was harmed by it.

Last year Judge D. Lowell Jensen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed the case because he found no legal connection between Macias' murder and how sheriff's deputies handled her complaints against her husband. But in a stunning reversal, a federal appeals court on July 20 ruled that the legal issue to be resolved is whether the sheriff's department violated Macias' constitutional right to equal protection-not whether the deputies' inaction directly caused her death. “It is well established that ‘there is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being murdered by criminals or madmen,'” Judge Arthur L. Alarcon, wrote in the unanimous opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which includes California and a swath of western states, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico.

“There is a constitutional right, however, to have police services administered in a nondiscriminatory manner-a right that is violated when a state actor denies such protection to disfavored persons.”

While the case is pending, victims' advocates ask why some California police departments have been so slow to change, citing the much-publicized domestic violence case involving O.J. Simpson's alleged attacks on his wife in the years before she was murdered in 1994.

“It blows me away that this is happening here,” said Gael Strack, the assistant city attorney overseeing San Diego's Domestic Violence Unit. Since 1986, San Diego has served as a model of how a community can work together to reduce crime against women by attacking domestic violence at its earliest stages and through multiple levels of law enforcement-from cops on the beat to prosecutors in the courts, Strack explained.

Police cannot be allowed treat domestic violence simply as misunderstandings between men and women, she added. De Santis of the Women's Justice Center agrees. Left unchecked, some men become emboldened and carry out their threats of harm.

Each year 1,500 domestic violence victims are murdered nationwide, De Santis said, with women of color experiencing a death rate much higher than that of white women.

“The thing is, none of these women has to die because domestic violence homicide does not happen out of the blue,” she said. “These women go to the police an average of five times. If you give the proper law enforcement response, you put the offender in jail, on a leash.”

The earlier the authorities get involved, the faster the domestic violence homicide rate drops, Strack added. “My question for Sonoma: This tragedy happened. How can we prevent it from happening again, so there are no more Maria Teresa Maciases?”

Siobhan Morrissey is a lawyer and a journalist based in Miami.