(WOMENSENEWS)–The body and the questions surrounding the 1996 murder of Carrie Culberson have yet to be laid to rest. Culberson’s body has never been found and a trial will begin Jan. 22 in Cincinnati, Ohio, that will lay the blame for its disappearance at the feet of her hometown police force.
Her murderer and former boyfriend, Vincent Doan, is now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, but that is not enough for her survivors. They want the attitudes that led to her death to change in Blanchester, Ohio, a 4,200-person town 35 miles outside Cincinnati, and have sued the town’s government in federal court for the police department’s alleged role in the body’s disappearance.
The case is one of a growing number aimed at holding law enforcement and local governments accountable for their lack of response to violence against women.
In July, the California federal appeals court allowed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Sonoma County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department to go forward in a case that accused the department of failing to protect Maria Teresa Macias. The Santa Rosa battered woman had called the police 22 times in the year and a half before her estranged husband killed her. (See “In Death, A Battered Woman Could Help the Living,” Women’s Enews, Aug. 31, 2000: http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=257&context=archive.)
Growing Trend to Hold Police Accountable for Failure to Protect
Legal experts, including Roberta Valente, head of Domestic Violence Policy and Advocacy, Takoma Park, Md., say cases like the one in Blanchester are part of a trend in developing civil strategies to hold law enforcement and others responsible for their responses to partner violence.
“The past 10 years have seen huge changes in criminal justice procedures for domestic violence that have permeated the law-enforcement culture,” says Valente. “As we see here, there are places where it doesn’t work, but the changes in philosophies have been yielding some results. And now we’re starting to see some of these types of changes on the civil side as well.”
Five days after Culberson was reported missing in August 1996, police dogs found her scent at a pond on Doan’s family’s property. Police Chief Richard Payton, a friend of Doan’s family, called off the search and left the area unsecured. When the pond was drained the next day, footprints were visible on the bottom and the body was gone.
The town could be held liable if the family proves with a preponderance of evidence that Payton failed in his duties and essentially acted as an accessory to murder after the fact by enabling the murderer to conceal evidence of his crime.
Culberson and Doan’s relationship followed a familiar course. Less than one year after they began dating, Doan’s abuse escalated from smashing Culberson’s car windows while she sat inside to hitting her so hard that her kidneys were bruised and to throwing her across a room. One month before her death, Doan, then 24, hit Culberson, 22, in the head with a metal object. Culberson needed surgical staples to close the wound.
Culberson told police of the assaults at least three times; however, Doan was not arrested or investigated until Culberson filed a criminal complaint herself after being hit in the head.
Doan was due in court on assault charges the week after Culberson was reported missing. A few days before she disappeared, Doan abducted Culberson and held her at gunpoint for five hours. When he abducted her again, she never returned home.
After Culberson’s mother reported her daughter gone, Chief Payton warned Doan’s father that his son would be a suspect. Eventually, Doan’s father and half-brother were accused of helping Doan attempt to cover up the crime.
In 1998, Doan’s brother was found guilty of obstructing justice and tampering with evidence for his role in concealing Culberson’s body. Doan’s father was found not guilty. Police chief Payton was prosecuted for obstruction of justice and dereliction of duty. He pleaded no contest and lost his job.
Family Sues for Police Chief’s Actions
Culberson’s family brought civil suits against the Doan family, Payton and the town of Blanchester in attempts to compel them to reveal the location of her body, hold the police accountable and recover damages. Culberson’s mother, father and sister–Debbie, Roger and Christina Culberson–brought claims alleging wrongful death, violation of constitutional equal protection guarantees, civil rights violations, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and obstruction of justice. All but one of the claims have been dismissed, yet that is enough for the town’s actions and inactions to be publicly scrutinized.
“At a minimum, Chief Payton’s alleged actions violated his duty as the chief law enforcement officer, and at a maximum, he was either explicitly or implicitly involved in the cover-up of Carrie’s murder and subsequent disposal of Carrie’s body,” said District Court Judge S. Arthur Spiegel in his Dec. 14 order allowing the case to go forward.
The town’s mayor, Harry Brumbaugh, was not available for comment and his representative was not empowered to speak on his behalf. Jennifer Branch, the Culbersons’ attorney and a civil rights specialist, says her clients are not only seeking damages but also a shift in the town’s policies.
“It’s not clear to us that the village has learned anything from what happened here. From the citizens’ point of view, the police allowed their neighbor to be murdered–they failed to protect her,” says Branch. “They allowed the police chief to be on leave with pay and to retire early. What the village learned from this incident was how to protect their police chief, not how to protect their citizens. The village did not enforce its domestic violence laws, and unfortunately, that has not changed.”
Lauren R. Taylor is a freelance writer and self-defense instructor based in Silver Spring, Md.
New York Bans Job Bias Against Domestic Violence Victims
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Friday signed into law a measure that protects the employment rights of battered women. The law prohibits employment discrimination–firing, disciplinary actions or other measures–against victims and perceived victims of domestic violence.
Geoff Boehm, staff attorney at NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, called the law the first of its kind in the nation. One-quarter to one-half of domestic violence victims lose their jobs, at least in part, to violence and abuse, according to studies. (NOW Legal Defense is the publisher of Women’s Enews.)
Women’s advocates said that women now could feel safe in talking to employers about how to stop violence from coming into the workplace without fear of retaliation. Until now, they said, victims of domestic violence in New York City have been forced to decide which is worse: staying silent and putting up with harassment and the risk of violence at work, or speaking up and hoping that their employers do not fire them.
The law is the second recently enacted to protect New York City victims of gender-based violence.
In December the City Council passed a law permitting victims to sue their attackers for civil damages in local courts. (See “New York Permits Gender Violence Victims to Sue,” Women’s Enews, Dec. 29, 2000: http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=388&context=archive.) New York victims of gender violence are the most recent to receive such protection under local laws and are the first to gain such a right after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women did not have the right to bring such suits in federal court and encouraged local jurisdictions to step in.
In addition to New York City, 10 states and the District of Columbia currently have provisions recognizing gender-based crimes as a form of civil rights violation. –The editors