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Stalking

Angela Thurman was having a particularly bad morning.The 32-year-old assistant clothing buyer was in such a rush to get to work that she spilled a large black coffee on the hood of her car and then knocked the overflowing ashtray to the floor. After struggling through her morning appointments, she went to get her car washed at lunchtime ."One of the employees greeted me at the car wash, gave me a claim check, and told me to pay at the cashier inside," says Thurman, nervously chewing the skin around her fingernails. "Other than that 15-second conversation, I never gave him a second thought."Thurman didn't learn until a year later that instead of simply cleaning the inside of her car, the friendly guy at the car wash first rifled through her personal belongings and copied down information from her car registration. Then he vacuumed.Thurman soon got into her car and drove back to work, completely unaware that she had left a lasting impression.Over the next several months, Thurman received over four dozen roses, three boxes of chocolates, two bottles of perfume, 10 scented candles, and black lace lingerie.She has been followed. Someone once left men's clothing in her car to be found by her then-fiance. Her night-school professor, after receiving an anonymous call, began doubting Thurman's work was her own. Her house has been broken into. Thurman says the endless shower of gifts, and her growing paranoia, led to the end of her engagement to her fiance. Distressed by her professor's mistrust, she dropped out of classes."My life has become such a paranoid mess that the expensive house and car alarms I had to install still don't stop me from feeling unsafe," she says. Thurman, unfortunately, is not alone. Nightmarish situations like hers prompted the Massachusetts legislature to pass a law in 1992 that protects women from stalkers. But critics say that the anti-stalking laws, which are being reviewed by legislators this year, need refining. Currently, the laws help when victims know their stalkers -- which is the case most of the time -- but not when the stalker is a stranger, as in Thurman's case. Critics also say the law needs to be more precise about what exactly constitutes stalking, especially in today's world of faxes, beepers, and e-mail.Stalking is a nationwide problem. According to a recent study by the National Institute of Justice, in Washington, D.C., 1 in 12 US women say they have been stalked at least once. Stalking "transcends race, age, and economic standing, from high school students to national celebrities like Madonna," says Rhonda Martinson of the National Battered Women's Justice Project.But it is also an extremely complex problem. Stalking is often tied up with domestic violence -- itself an area where law enforcement is still playing catch-up -- and is not always recognized as a separate issue. Stalking is also difficult to define: when does legal behavior, protected by the Constitution, cross the line? Moreover, stalking laws can be difficult to enforce. Doing so effectively requires well-trained officers and a victim who is willing and able to keep careful records. Some experts even question whether the law is the best way to handle a stalker.To be sure, the establishment of anti-stalking laws, both in this state and across the nation, signals real progress in the battle against violence. Last year, 374 stalking cases were arraigned in Massachusetts. And stalkers are being incarcerated. For instance, in February of last year, 42-year-old Vernon Isaac of Boston was sentenced to nine years in prison and batterer's classes for stalking and threatening his former girlfriend in 1994. Over the last five years, 417 stalking cases have been arraigned in Suffolk County."Prior to the creation of the [anti-]stalking laws, someone had to commit a physical assault in order to be charged with a crime," says Nancy Scannell, director of public policy for the Massachusetts Battered Women's Coalition. But there are still women out there (and even some men) who say they need more help.In mid-January, state legislators will vote on three bills that clarify who qualifies as a stalker. This is an area where the current laws fall short, and law enforcement compounds the problem. The Boston Police Department often logs stalking as some other crime -- assault, domestic abuse, threats. So a common method of dealing with a stalker is to issue a 209A domestic dispute restraining order. But a large number of acquaintance and stranger stalking situations go unresolved because 209As can only be obtained against a family or household member."We have heard testimony about stranger stalking or situations in which an individual is rebuffed but continues to pursue the person who rejected them," says state senator Bill Keating (D-Sharon), chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, which drafted the amendments. "That's why it's important that we broaden the definition of what constitutes a stalking situation."Margaret Macchi had no previous relationship with her stalker. That, coupled with lack of concrete evidence, forced her to leave the state and start her life over again.The 41-year-old secretary says she fell victim to a sociopath who spotted her at a laundromat in Framingham two years ago. A divorced mother of two teenage boys, Macchi says she had a difficult time finding enough hours in the day to juggle professional and family life. So she set up a schedule, and Tuesday night was laundry night.What she didn't realize, though, is that someone else was also following her routine. Macchi says she was so busy trying to get the laundry done in time to pick up her boys that she never noticed the short, stocky, balding man who appeared in the laundromat every time she did.One Tuesday Macchi was too busy to do her laundry, so she waited until the next night. That's when her problems began."The entire time I was doing my laundry, I noticed this man pacing around the washing machines -- I even remember thinking this guy reminded me of an animal stalking his prey," she says.He followed Macchi to her car and began screaming at her for not showing up the night before. That was the start of 11 terrible months that included threatening phone calls, broken windshields, and the attempted abduction of her son."When my son came home and told me that the man who hangs around in front of our apartment tried to pick him up from school, I knew it was time to leave," says Macchi, who within a week relocated to another state. "No matter how many times I tried to get help, nothing could be done because I didn't even know his name."Macchi spoke to the police on several occasions, but other than the initial confrontation in the laundromat, she has no proof that that man was her harasser (police need a third-party witness). She was even unsuccessful at finding anyone who witnessed the man trying to pick up her son at school. "My story, with no evidence linking him to what was happening to me, sounded like a well-spun tale," Macchi sighs.Dr. Elaine Alpert, assistant professor of public health and medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, says stranger stalking is not uncommon when one considers the stalker profile."Stalkers are like rapists in that they seek empowerment through their victim's fear," says Alpert, the only medical professional on the governor's commission against domestic violence. "Many have a history of violence and do not necessarily need to know their victim in order to feel empowered."The judiciary committee's amendments will go beyond family and household relationships, and those between people who are or were seriously dating, to address non-dating, acquaintance, and stranger situations. If the bills pass, no longer will strangers who stalk women be beneath the law. However, the criteria for obtaining a 209A restraining order will not be changed: victims whose stalkers are strangers, coworkers, or acquaintances will still not be eligible for a 209A."They have received initial Senate approval, and we hope to achieve final Senate approval by mid-January," says Senator Keating. "We are trying to get the House to act on them, although they were rejected last year."Apparently, the House questioned the constitutionality of the new amendments. In Massachusetts, there are two types of restraining orders issued to victims of violence: 209As and civil restraining orders. The 209A, the most common one, can be filed only when someone feels threatened by a current or former spouse, a relative, or someone they have lived with, have children with, or have been seriously dating. Domestic 209As are filed at district court, and violations of the order result in arrest and prosecution.But in all other situations, the victim needs to file a civil restraining order in superior court. Unlike 209As, which are free, civil restraining orders come with a potentially hefty fee. Even more disheartening is the fact that violating this type of restraining order doesn't always result in prosecution. Two years ago, for instance, more than half of those who violated civil restraining orders in Massachusetts were simply held in contempt and ordered to pay a fine.Statistics prove that the consequences of violating a civil restraining order are not sufficiently severe. A study conducted by the Office of the Commissioner of Probation shows that 32 percent of civil restraining orders were violated in 1994. Among those violators, only 19.4 were incarcerated for an extended period of time; 17.7 percent were jailed for a short period of time and released on probation. But a full 50 percent received probation sentences, and 12.9 percent were fined and released."The statute defining who is eligible for a 209A domestic violence restraining order must be broadened," says Andrea Cabral of the Suffolk County DA's domestic violence unit. "There is a whole group of victimized people who can't seek criminal action through a 209A because they don't fit the criteria."It can be done. This past January, New Hampshire changed its law to allow those who were not meeting 209A criteria to obtain 209As. Now, victims can get domestic restraining orders against people whom they don't necessarily know. The change in legislation was motivated by the case of a woman who was being stalked by a store clerk. The man had talked her into applying for a credit card. Instead of submitting her application, however, he kept her information and began pursuing her."There were too many instances in which people were coming to us with complaints against strangers," says Dover DA George Wattendorf. "We had no legal tools to handle such a situation, so we had to create one."The legislature is also considering clarifying what constitutes "stalking." In the age of modern technology, harassment can take place from a distance, but the current law vaguely defines stalking as a type of physical behavior, excluding such things as e-mails, pager messages, and faxed memos.Take the case of James Richards of Attleboro. Although he was charged in April 1996 with sending more than 20 faxes to Needham-based WCVB-TV ( Channel 5) -- one appeared to be a bomb threat and was signed "Son of Sam" -- the case was dismissed. The reason: fax harassment is not covered by the current statute. Prosecutors have appealed the decision and begin arguing their case January 8.Then there's "Joanne." A statuesque redhead with a bubbly personality, Joanne has been working as a public relations employee for over three years. The 27-year-old native of Ireland claims to have a happy family life and an ex-boyfriend with whom she remains on amicable terms. Still, over the past six months, she has been receiving threatening e-mails at her job.Although the threats are not overt, such messages as "I don't like to be made upset so don't upset me" and "Bad things happen to bad people" have made Joanne feel as though she is being watched and may be in some kind of danger."I don't know who it is, and every time I try to e-mail them back, I am told the address doesn't exist," she says.The city resident says she doesn't know of anyone following her and has never been assaulted. She isn't convinced that a few annoying e-mails make hers a stalking situation.Scannell, of the Massachusetts Battered Women's Coalition, says e-mail stalking is a growing problem because e-mail use is becoming such a common form of communication."We are merely updating our laws to coincide with the progress of our times," Scannell says. "This is an age of technology."Senator James Jajuga (D-Methuen) is sponsoring a telecommunications amendment to the stalking laws. If it passes, threats via computer, phone, or any other electronic communication outlet will be punishable by law. The vague language of the current law leaves indirect forms of stalking, such as telecommunication stalking, open to interpretation by a judge.The current anti-stalking laws, critics say, also fail to address implicit, nonverbal threats. Another amendment would cover nonconfrontational threats, so that a woman would be protected against such acts as property damage. According to the Office of Probation study, one-fourth of victims in Massachusetts say their stalker damaged or destroyed their property or possessions. Even the gesture of running a finger across one's throat, or leaving a dead rat on someone's doorstep, is a form of stalking, says Diane Juliar, assistant attorney general and chief of the state's family and community crimes bureau."Ann," a college junior, agrees. She reaches under the bed in her dorm room and pulls out a plastic storage container designed to hold sweaters and other garments.But the athletic blond uses it to store "presents" left for her by her former boyfriend.Among the items is a Barbie doll with a red line drawn around its neck, a magazine photo of a supermodel's body (the head was torn off), and a newspaper clipping about a woman in East Boston who was strangled to death by her boyfriend last year."He doesn't need to say any more," Ann says. "I think I get his point."Reworking the law will not be a panacea. Without proper enforcement and prosecution, many stalking victims will continue to go without help.One central problem is that nobody knows exactly what the current law has accomplished. Sandra Adams, associate director of research for the commissioner of probation, says that there are no accurate statistics for the number of stalking arrests, prosecutions, or incarcerations."Many times, a stalking situation is reported to the police as something else, such as assault and battery," Adams says. "So it is almost impossible to precisely monitor stalking situations separate from domestic abuse, assault, or threats."According to Sergeant Detective Margot Hill of the Boston Police Department, police academy cadets are taught that stalking is essentially a form of domestic assault."We enforce the stalking laws based on the 209A domestic abuse laws," Hill says.This is a large part of the problem, says Rhonda Martinson of the Battered Women's Justice Project, in Minnesota."Stalking is a very difficult law to enforce because you are dealing with a pattern of behavior that is not clearly defined, rather than a particular incident, such as assault and battery," says Martinson, a former prosecutor.Oftentimes, previous criminal records are not checked when a stalker goes before the court."Someone with a prior history of harassment, threats, or even assault may be viewed as a first-time offender because it is technically the first time the individual has been charged with stalking," says Martinson. "Until the laws are revised and enforcers such as police and court officials are properly educated, stalking will remain a dangerous issue for millions of women."Some states are working to ease the difficulty of enforcing stalking laws.George Wattendorf, the DA for Dover, New Hampshire, says that in 1993 New Hampshire became the first of what he estimates to be a dozen states that now use electronic monitors to keep track of a stalker's movements prior to trial. The device is an ankle bracelet with a radio transmitter that sets off an alarm in the victim's home if the stalker comes within 500 feet.And in Los Angeles and New Mexico, the police departments provide stalking victims with log books to track the date, time, and description of a stalking incident. This helps prosecutors build a case. The books also contain a list of safety precautions and emergency phone numbers."Why should someone's life be threatened before something is done?" asks Nancy Scannell. "Similarly, why should a woman being stalked by her ex-boyfriend be better protected than a woman being stalked by someone she works with?"With a clearer legal definition of who a stalker is and what actions constitute stalking, police and prosecutors will be better able to enforce the law and protect victims who, for now, don't believe they have a legal recourse to stop the torment.

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