Award This Round To The Battered Wife An Appeals Court Has Ruled That The Husband Cannot, After All, Share Proceeds From Her Book

Posted: February 10, 1988

Five years after her violent marriage moved from bedroom to courtroom, Charlotte Fedders believes that justice has prevailed.

It didn't look that way to her last autumn. She had just published a book detailing the beatings she had repeatedly received at the hands of her husband, a top law-enforcement official in the Reagan administration - but, on Oct. 16, a divorce arbiter in Maryland ruled that John Fedders was entitled to 25 percent of her book earnings. It appeared to Fedders and her allies that her husband was being allowed, in essence, to reap a reward for criminal acts.

But last week a Maryland judge overturned that decree, ruling that the former enforcement-division chief of the U.S. Securities and Exchange

Commission doesn't deserve a penny from the book, Shattered Dreams, because, as the judge put it, "what he did (during the marriage) was as classic a case of cruelty of treatment as one is likely to find."

So ends another episode - perhaps the last - in the soap-opera story of Charlotte Fedders, probably the nation's best-known domestic-violence victim, a rare case of an affluent woman willing to blow the whistle on a violent spouse and thus bring his stellar career to ruin. Her book describes 15 years of physically abusive behavior - most of which her husband confirmed in 1985, during divorce court proceedings that led to his resignation from the SEC. A paperback edition is planned, and there's been talk of a TV movie.

"What's important about the new ruling," said Charlotte Fedders, talking by phone Monday from her Maryland home, "is that the judge said the fault (for the breakup) was John's, that he shouldn't have hit me, no matter what reason he gave. That's quite a statement for the domestic-violence movement. It means the men can't say, 'She made me do it,' and expect some kind of reward - in my case, a monetary reward from my book."

Marcia Niemann, director of the Washington-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she was "delighted for Charlotte," but pointed out that her abuser has been fighting her in court for half a decade, "and that's one of the things that makes it particularly difficult for battered women to leave their mates."

John and Charlotte Fedders were married in 1966. By age 33, in 1974, he was a partner in a top Washington law firm. At home, she braved the beatings

from her 6-foot-10, 230-pound husband; the Roman Catholic Church had taught her divorce was a sin. But in February 1983, he moved out at her insistence, after punching her face during an argument. While separated, they haggled for two years over the division of assets. Charlotte Fedders spoke up in court about the abuse in 1985, in the hope of getting a better financial settlement.

The decree last October shocked those who work in the domestic-violence field. A domestic-relations master - a lawyer who, under Maryland law, presides over divorce cases - ruled that Charlotte Fedders was equally at fault for the breakup of the marriage. "There is no question," wrote master John McInerney, a former three-term Republican state legislator, "that (she) suffered physical abuse, but that, in and of itself, was not what brought about the estrangement of the parties." John Fedders had told McInerney that his wife had provoked him to violence by denying him emotional support.

"We were all outraged by (McInerney's) reasoning," said Shawn Towey, spokeswoman for Women Against Abuse, a Philadelphia service group. "In terms of the reasoning, it was like giving Hitler a share of the royalties for books written about World War II." Charlotte Fedders' lawyer, Brian Renahan, appealed.

And last week, a Circuit Court judge, James McAuliffe, overturned the decree. "The legal fault lies with John Fedders, clearly and unequivocally," McAuliffe said. Regardless of what may have caused Fedders to strike his wife, ''it doesn't change the fact that he did it," said the judge.

John Fedders, who is trying to revive his legal career, has refused comment on the McAuliffe ruling. He did not attend the hearing last week, but his lawyer, Hal Witt, contended that Charlotte Fedders' writing had caused psychological damage to their five sons, all of whom live with their mother. The judge, however, interviewed all the children, and disagreed with that contention.

"Mr. Fedders thinks that public discussion of the case is not good for the children," Witt said Monday. He declined comment on whether he would appeal the ruling. He also told the court last week that John Fedders still believed he was entitled to money from the book, "as a matter of law and equity."

Charlotte Fedders' lawyer had argued in her appeal that if John Fedders were allowed to earn royalties, it would violate the spirit of a Maryland law barring criminals from profiting from books written about them. (A similar act is on the books in Pennsylvania.) But although Fedders had confirmed his acts while on the witness stand - stating that he broke his wife's eardrum, punched her in the eye, and pulled her by the hair - he was never arrested. McAuliffe sidestepped the crime-for-profit argument. He simply ruled that, since no monetary value could be placed on the book, it couldn't be considered a marital asset.

The irony is that the original ruling may have hurt sales of Shattered Dreams - or so Charlotte believes. "There's a certain number of people sympathetic to me who weren't buying it," she contended, "because of the idea that John would get some of the money. I heard this from a number of sources."

Marcia Niemann said one of her friends declined to buy the book for that very reason. "She wasn't willing to have any of her money go to him," Niemann recalled.

And Judy Yupcavage, speaking in Harrisburg for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, heard talk like that in her office. "We said, 'He's still controlling her. Why should we give a penny to a batterer?' "

(Larry Ashmead, Charlotte Fedders' editor at Harper & Row, said that fewer than 30,000 hard-cover copies of the book have been sold, a disappointing figure. "I'm at a loss about why," he said. He suspects the topic was too depressing for a mass audience.)

The skirmish over the book was just one element of the court fight. The couple, who have yet to sign the final divorce papers, have sparred over alimony payments, now $400 a month, and the proceeds of their yet-to-be-sold house, valued at $450,000. McAuliffe ruled that Charlotte Fedders would get half the house money, plus $50,000. Charlotte filed for bankruptcy last year, and has been working part-time in a flower shop. "I just want to go forward with my life," she said Monday.

John Fedders has maintained that his private practice has suffered because of the publicity; he now pegs his annual income at $30,000. Charlotte Fedders was told by McAuliffe that if John Fedders' salary goes up, she should seek more alimony. Indeed, court records of a corporate lawsuit revealed yesterday that John Fedders is the attorney for Lazlo Tauber, named last year by Forbes magazine as one of the nation's 400 richest citizens.

"The victory that Charlotte got from this judge is wonderful," said Judy Yupcavage, "but in these kinds of cases, one day you're ahead and the next day you're forced to take a step backward. If the victim isn't at the hands of the batterer, she's at the hands of the system. There is no end. It's just sequels and sequels."

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