She shook her head and blew out smoke from her Newport. Below her chin, a crescent-shaped scar runs from ear to ear. The boy seems happy these days, she said, "but he still makes me feel guilty sometimes, know what I mean? Even now, when I'm not with him, he flips out when he hears an ambulance. He'll ask whoever he's with, 'Is my mommy all right?' Which I don't blame him for. The last he saw of an ambulance, I was leaving in it."
Before the stabbing, Tracey Thurman, now 24, was just another young wife stuck in a bad marriage - apparently destined to live a private but troubled life in her small home city of Torrington, Conn., population 30,000. Yet today, she has become, to many, a national cause celebre - a spouse-abuse victim who made her local police pay dearly for the way they treated her in the eight months preceding the assault.
It was a landmark case, and it is now sharpening debate over the relationship between police and victims of domestic violence. In federal court last year, Thurman said police had repeatedly ignored her complaints about death threats from her estranged husband. She sued for damages, claiming that the police were taking a laissez-faire approach to family violence - thereby violating her constitutional right to equal protection.
In June, the jury sided with Thurman - faulting 24 city cops, or 40 percent of the force. And in the fall, the defendants settled, forgoing a costly appeal. It was the first federal award of its kind. Tracey Thurman wound up $1.9 million richer - minus one-third in attorneys' fees, of course. And her attorney, Burt Weinstein, isn't shy about gauging the importance of the case.
"If cops choose not to take something seriously, then law is, in effect, repealed at their whim," says Weinstein. "The sin of omission - to deny certain people access to justice - can be as damaging as the sin of
commission. This case says, 'You make an arrest on first complaint, and if you don't, then you're asking for it. Then you pay the whole price.' The ripples
from the pebbles will strike a lot of shores."
The Thurman legacy comes at a time when police are already under pressure - from lawmakers, spouse-abuse activists, and law enforcement experts - to play it tough with abusers. The '70s image of the cop as family counselor has fallen from favor. The '80s approach is typified by a new Pennsylvania law that takes effect on Wednesday: A cop can now arrest a spouse for a simple misdemeanor assault, even when the offense was not committed in the officer's presence. In Philadelphia - which has 40,000 abused women, according to the District Attorney's office - police are now being briefed on the rule change.
The pro-arrest trend has been fueled by the latest FBI statistics showing that spouse murders in America account for one-eighth of all homicides. Women are believed to comprise at least 95 percent of spouse-abuse victims. Yet despite all the emphasis on getting cops to act - and, thanks to Thurman, making them aware of the price of inaction - some experts caution that police, no matter how enlightened, can never be expected to eradicate all abuse between intimates.
"The lesson of Thurman is that cops can't look the other way, even if they prefer to perceive abuse as a private family matter," says Nancy Loving, a former police program specialist in Philadelphia's managing director's office, who now works as a consultant to mayors and governors on spouse-abuse issues. "Cops only respond to external pressure, and, yes, lawsuits are one way to get that response. Nevertheless, the more we define it as just a 'police problem,' the more everyone else is let off the hook."
James Fyfe says domestic disputes have always been hard for police to handle. He should know. He was a cop himself.
But he has scant sympathy for the police in Tracey Thurman's city. "For your basic middle-class or working-class guy, the process of arrest is something that will deter him from future violence," says Fyfe, an ex-New York City officer now associated with the Police Foundation in Washington, a law enforcement think tank. "This guy (husband Charles 'Buck' Thurman) learned that he could get away with anything. No matter what he did, the police were essentially licensing it."
The lawyer for the defendant officers, Jesse Frankl, still maintains today - as he told the jury last year - that the police handled Tracey Thurman's case the same way they would any other, and that even presidents get shot despite the Secret Service. But in the eyes of the federal jury, Tracey Thurman deserved more attention than she got.
Born to working-class parents, she lost her best friend at age 17 when her mother died. She dropped out of high school and took off for Florida, where she met Buck, a construction worker. Two years later, they married, and Charles Jr., nicknamed C.J., was born in August 1981. But the marriage quickly
went awry, and in October 1982, she took C.J. and headed home to Torrington.
Eight months later, Tracey was in the hospital and Buck was in jail on an assault charge. The attack came after Tracey had gone repeatedly to police with claims that Buck was threatening her life. At his own trial, which led to a 14-year prison sentence, Buck "didn't admit (the threats), but we didn't
deny them," according to Eugene Riccio, his public defender. What happened during those eight months was depicted in Tracey Thurman vs. City of Torrington:
On Oct. 22, 1982, the police met Tracey Thurman for the first of many times. She was staying with friends when Buck phoned to say he was in town. He came to the apartment and was admitted. He asked her to come outside. When she refused, "he got mad . . . and grabbed me by the throat." The police came and took Buck from the premises. He returned 30 minutes later but left when Tracey and her friends barred the door.
On Nov. 1, Buck returned to the same apartment, grabbed C.J. and fled. According to a formal complaint filed that day with police, Tracey said: ''He told me that if we could not bring up the baby together, no one would do it. . . . He told me if I (called the police), he would kill me and that I would never see the baby again. I want my husband arrested for threatening me and the baby. I will go to court."
The court record indicates that no action was taken on her complaint. The police picked up Buck and returned the baby to Tracey, but that was all. On Nov. 3, she called police to report that Buck was making threatening phone calls. They noted this in the log.
On Nov. 5, she visited the city's family relations office, upstairs from the police department. Buck had been there, seeking visitation rights, and an official wanted to hear her side. Later, when she tried to drive away, Buck blocked her car, and, in view of a nearby police officer, put his fist through the windshield. She filed another complaint (quoting Buck as telling her, "I will get you, and when I do, I will really hurt you"). This time he was arrested on a breach of peace charge.
He was convicted five days later, but his six-month sentence was suspended. According to the Nov. 10 probation order, he was told to leave the area and return to Virginia with his father, "to not harass wife, Tracey Thurman," and "to stay away from premises" where Tracey was living with friends.
On Jan. 1, 1983, she looked out the window and saw that Buck was back, standing under a street light. She called the police again. They came, but Buck had vanished. According to her testimony, she told them about the discharge order, but "they just left." The Jan. 1 police log noted, "Matter resolved for time being, no formal complaint made."
She called again on Jan. 7 about another threatening call. The police log noted, "Wants it for the record only." But, as Tracey later testified, "I just assumed that he would be arrested. He was violating his probation."
Earlier this month, while reminiscing at home, she was struck by her own naivete. "I felt like I was the only woman going through it," she said. "I thought it was only me, and I was ashamed. 'Oh, man,' I thought, 'it's me against all these officers.' One time I was so mad, I stomped my foot so hard that I broke one of the heels off the cowboy boots I was wearing.
"But I'm stubborn. When I get onto something, that's it."
On May 5, 1983, she filed another complaint with police, stating that Buck had called "about 10 times" on May 4. Again she reported a threat: "He . . . stated to me that he was going to shoot me," the police report noted. She mentioned the probation order that barred Buck from contacting or harassing her. Then on May 6, she went to court and obtained a new restraining order against Buck. Above her signature, she wrote: "I believe I am in immediate and present danger. . . ." A copy was given to police, who acknowledged receipt in their log.
The record shows that Buck Thurman was not arrested. On May 25, Tracey went back to headquarters to file another complaint. Earlier that day, she told police, Buck appeared in person to warn that he would kill her once their divorce, then pending, became final. Again, Buck was not arrested.
On June 5, Buck was back, yelling up at her window. Again she called police. She says she told them about the probation and the new restraining order. She says she demanded an arrest. In trial testimony, police denied she had made such a request. At the time, they recorded the incident in their log, and wrote "no formal complaint." (James Fyfe of the Police Foundation, who was an expert witness in the trial, says that, in view of the case history, police had the responsibility to arrest Buck regardless of Tracey's wishes at the time.)
In any case, Buck remained free, and on June 10, he again found Tracey at her friends' apartment. Again she called police. Officer Frederick Petrovits, cruising in a patrol car, was told to arrest Charles Thurman.
Tracey went downstairs to meet Buck, because, as she testified, she hoped the officers would finally see him harassing her. When Buck saw the police car, he pulled out a knife and threw her down. In full view of friends and neighbors (many of whom testified at the trial), Buck stabbed her neck and face, and put three holes in her esophagus.
Petrovits didn't see the assault, but he saw a man with a bloody knife. He took the knife from the man, but did not arrest him or ask who he was. As Petrovits later testified, "He could have stabbed a chicken. He could have stabbed a dog." Undetained, Buck ran to Tracey and, as Petrovits put it, "I see his foot going down on her head." A doctor later testified that this act damaged her spinal cord, causing paralysis.
Buck Thurman was later convicted of first-degree assault; he could leave prison as early as 1991. His lawyer is appealing the conviction.
The police probed their own handling of Tracey's complaints and concluded that she had not suffered from a double standard of justice. But on the witness stand, the department's in-house investigator made several statements that helped Tracey's case, according to her lawyer, Burt Weinstein.
Capt. Al Columbia acknowledged that when Tracey complained to the police in January and May, the officers failed to check the terms of Buck's probation; that her May 5 complaint of a death threat was sent to family relations, whereas death threats between unmarried parties would have been handled by police; that the May 25 complaint was placed in the file of a vacationing officer, where "it sat until the day of the stabbing." Columbia called the latter act "a breakdown in our departmental protocol."
On the stand, Police Chief John Hayes said his officers treated all cases equally, as a matter of policy. He defended the decision to send the May 5 threat to family relations - although he told the jury that family relations had never issued an arrest warrant during his 29-year career.
Today, defense attorney Jesse Frankl still believes his client officers were the victims of hindsight. He notes that the cops always came when called. He says, "Tracey was not a 'battered woman.' Most of those incidents weren't physical confrontations. They were only phone calls. She was setting him (Buck) up for the divorce proceedings, building a record against him."
And he warns, "The ramifications of this go beyond that courtroom. The extension of liability to a third party that didn't commit the act is very unfortunate. There's no way the cops can win. It's kind of sad. When I was a kid, the cop was someone you looked up to. But because of this, the cops will have no discretion at all, and false arrest complaints will come in.
"We have Secret Servicemen protecting presidents, but they get killed and wounded. So how much protection is enough protection?"
But James Fyfe says times are changing. The pro-arrest bandwagon parallels the decline, in his words, of the "sexist assumption" that domestic violence is "a lesser animal" simply because it occurs between intimates rather than strangers. "And court verdicts like this," he says, "reflect prevailing social attitudes. Twenty-five years ago, Tracey Thurman would not have gotten into court with that case."
Pennsylvania's new law, which takes effect Wednesday, makes it easier for police to arrest. They can now make bookings on the basis of a black eye or bruised lip - simple misdemeanors - even when the assaults weren't committed in their presence. Under the old rules, such arrests weren't legal.
Fyfe says arrests are a definite deterrent. The Minneapolis police conducted an experiment in 1984, arresting some abusers and mediating with others. Nineteen percent of the jailed abusers repeated their acts during the next six months. But among the non-arrested abusers, 35 percent acted again.
Harvey Crudup, deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, says city cops should welcome the new law, which will remove the indecision that officers often feel in domestic situations: "There will be no question as to who's right and who's wrong, who should leave the scene and who should stay." He says all 7,000 officers will be briefed.
But local advocacy groups, such as Philadelphia's Women Against Abuse, voice a number of concerns. Originally they had hoped the new law would also make it easier for police to arrest spouses who made "terroristic threats," the kind attributed to Buck Thurman. But lawmakers said no; this means police can only arrest if such threats are voiced in their presence.
And the groups doubt whether 7,000 officers can be sufficiently schooled about the new law. They want the city police to set up special units, but the department declines to do so. And under the old rules - which mandated arrest when injuries amounted to a felony (serious bodily injury), or when a spouse violated a court protection order - police were already found wanting in a 1985 survey conducted for the mayor's Commission on the Status of Women. Police made arrests in 13 percent of the cases studied, but the report said injuries warranting arrest occurred in 44 percent.
The police said little about this survey at the time, but now Crudup says, ''They (critics) should spend a lot of time in our shoes, to see what we're going through. When you're actually out there, it's a lot different than when you're just sitting back and reading case histories. Most problems are society's problems, not merely problems of law enforcement."
But to Joan Kuriansky, who heads Women Against Abuse, that's not good enough: "We understand these are very complex cases for police. But police are often the only hope for protection that abused women have. Tracey Thurman's message is that women have the right to demand that police be accountable and responsive. Having something like Tracey's case means there's some expectation that the new law will be enforced. The case can make a difference."
"Everybody knows me, and I don't know them," Tracey Thurman said with a sigh, "and I don't like that."
The settlement money is coming in now - $4,000 a month. She's investing most of it. She wants to get well enough to work, but her therapists don't foresee full recovery. She can't lift her son, clip her nails, dry her hair,
put on earrings, pluck her eyebrows, hang curtains or change linen - simple tasks she once took for granted.
She wants to lead a normal life, but the trappings of celebrity intrude: ''People want me to make speeches and go to shelters, but I can't go through that again and bring it home to C.J. I don't want the reminders. I don't want to be categorized. I don't want C.J. growing up like that."
Sometimes she thinks about buying land on the edge of town; she can afford something better than her third-floor walkup, one flight up from the friends who first took her in when she fled to Torrington. But Buck Thurman could be free in five years, and she doubts whether she'll be safe if she stays in Torrington. "I feel sometimes like I'm still the one being punished," she said.
A gust of wind wafted through the kitchen window, and tossed her hair. She
went to the porch railing to tell C.J. that she'd throw down a hat. ''Sometimes I don't think he likes his new mommy," she said, taking unwieldy steps across her kitchen. "I can't throw him a ball. It takes me so long to tie his shoes, he gets aggravated."
And as for her landmark case, she sounded sanguine. "People say, 'Oh, Tracey, what a wonderful thing you did!' But really, I just started something that'll take years and years to straighten out. C.J. is asking me now, 'Will my daddy hurt me?' And I say, 'C.J., the policemen won't let anything happen.' " She paused and smirked. "Huh! Here I was lying to my son."
The phone rang. It was Burt Weinstein, her lawyer, asking if she wanted to make a speech in Florida. She declined. When she hung up, she said it was time to wash the kitchen floor. She figured it would take her most of the afternoon.