Wednesday, December 5, 2007
The murder of Jackson State University student Latasha Norman, 20, marks the third death of a woman allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend in the Jackson area since September. Domestic-abuse counselors say the string of murders mirrors a statewide trend in incidents of abuse.
"It's indicative of the continued rise in domestic-violence cases," said Sandy Middleton, executive director of The Center for Violence Prevention, in Pearl.
"It stands to reason that if the incidence of domestic violence continues to increase, the more deadly ones will increase also. Mississippi ranks fifth highest in the country for incidents of domestic-violence homicides. It's a dreary climate for a woman in that kind of situation in the state."
Police arrested Norman's former boyfriend, JSU criminal justice major Stanley Cole, on Nov. 15, two days after Norman went missing. Jackson Municipal Court Judge Melvin Priester ordered Cole, 24, held without bond on the murder charge Nov. 30.
Another domestic-violence homicide pre-dated this murder by weeks, however. In September, George Bell III allegedly raped and then beat his girlfriend Heather Spencer to death with a flashlight in his mother's house, surrendering to police the next day. Bell pled not guilty to murder in Hinds County Circuit Court in September. His court date is tentatively set for March. Police arrested his mother, Robbie Bell, as an accessory after the fact in October.
One week after Spencer's death was the September murder of Doris Shavers. Her ex-boyfriend, Henry Phillips, allegedly shot Shavers in the head as she sat next to her 12-year-old daughter, Jessica, in her living room.
Each death followed a spate of violence at the hands of the alleged murderer, followed up by little to no preventive maintenance on the part of local authorities. Experts say domestic violence is the pattern as in these cases.
Bell allegedly bludgeoned Spencer two months prior to her death, entering her home and beating her with a hammer. Spencer needed almost 60 staples to close those wounds. Jackson police charged Bell with felony aggravated assault, then reduced the charge to simple assault in that near-death encounter, but never arrested him. Instead of hitting a jail cell, Bell went to rehab, perhaps gathering his strength.
JPD officers responded to two separate calls related to Phillips on the day of Shavers' death. Phillips allegedly threatened a mentally disabled teenager with a gun, though officers failed to collect either of Phillips' two guns on that first visit. Police took only one of Phillips' guns the second time family members called police. Minutes after police left, he allegedly put his remaining gun to use.
Norman's death was also not without foreshadowing. Norman reported on Oct. 9 that Cole had punched her in a parking lot of a Pearl restaurant, yet Cole was not arrested until two days after Norman vanished from the JSU campus. Jackson police issued an arrest warrant for him regarding the case and took him into custody after he made an initial appearance in Pearl municipal court on the misdemeanor assault charge.
Pearl Police Chief Bill Slade did not return calls to the Jackson Free Press regarding the department's handling of the case and why they did not arrest him sooner.
"Before that, (Cole) had no record," said Lt. Gerald Jones, at a press conference last week. And without a record, experts say local authorities using traditional reactionary methods—with little to no training on crisis intervention—ultimately remove themselves from the picture, ruling out the possibility of the victim receiving life-saving counseling. Counseling, according to Middleton, might have spared Norman.
"They may have written up a report, but nobody took that extra step to put her in contact with us," Middleton said. "If somebody had said, 'here, give these people a call,' we could have given her counseling and some therapy, because basically it's the woman who has to decide that she's not doing this anymore. She needed a counselor to tell her that the likelihood was that if he hit her once, he was probably going to hurt her again."
With counseling, Norman might have recognized the signs and avoided leaving the campus with Cole on Nov. 13. Probably unaware of the danger, Norman felt ambivalent enough about her relationship to keep silent on the matter to family members. Her uncle, Matthew Norman, claims he had no inkling of Cole's venom, despite Norman reporting her assault to Pearl police, and despite one incident of his niece's tires being slashed.
"She lived with us during the summer months and on weekends and holidays," Matthew said of Norman, who was a Greenville resident attending college. "She never did say anything about Cole. We didn't know there was something going on like that."
Officers need training to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and to know what to do once the situation is verified, said Special Assistant Attorney General Heather P. Wagner, of the Mississippi attorney general's office, and head of the Domestic Violence Division, which trains government policing agencies to recognize the warning signs and what to do if their suspicions are verified.
"We hold classes that train officers on what to look for … what the law allows them to do, and we give them agencies to refer victims to for seeking help," Wagner said.
Wagner's team has worked with the Jackson Police Department. The Department even has a Crisis Intervention Unit that involves itself with domestic abuse situations by fielding 911 calls regarding domestic violence. The unit contacts victims through calls or mail, offering counseling or referrals to other crisis prevention organizations, like Catholic Charities' domestic-violence shelter for battered spouses. It also sends representatives to monitor municipal courts for potential candidates to send to court-ordered crisis intervention counseling, and offers training to officers on dealing with domestic situations. The unit is geared for follow-up and preventive work, however, and is not designed for interception efforts.
Public Safety Administrator Linda Woolley, who oversees the unit, told the JFP that the team is extremely short-staffed.
"We only have four social workers and myself," Woolley said. "I would take a staff of 20 or more if I could, because we need many more than what we have to handle the problems we're facing."
Woolley said she could not speak to the disconnect between Shavers and Spencer's cases and the Crisis Intervention Unit.
The cases could cost the city, though. One of Shavers' three daughters, Shalandria Shavers, as well as Shavers' brother, James Hopkins, served notice of a suit they are filing against the city, for breach of duty and gross negligence, among other charges.
Great article, Adam Lynch. We MUST keep this subject alive. Many women do not recognize the signs nor symptoms of this type of abuse. It usually starts long before the first physical lick is passed. I am amazed at the tone and the dialogue between some couples. There tends to be such a strong sense of entitlement and ownership. When the first WITCH with a (B) word is passed, it is time to get you heels 'a clicking.