Maria Teresa Macias

Women’s Enews Update

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–A ground-breaking domestic violence case was settled out of court for $1 million Tuesday, marking the first time that monetary damages have been awarded by an American law enforcement agency to the family of a domestic violence victim, advocates said.

Maria Teresa Macias, 36, was shot to death by her estranged husband Avelino Macias in 1996 in Sonoma, Calif., before he turned the gun on himself. In the months leading up to her death, she contacted the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department at least 18 times seeking protection from her increasingly abusive husband. Despite at least eight violations of a restraining order for stalking, Avelino Macias was never arrested or detained.

Teresa Macias’ three children and her mother, Sara Hernandez, who was wounded in the slaying, had sought $15 million in damages from the sheriff’s department for allegedly violating her civil rights to equal protection under the law.

The settlement was announced on the second day of testimony in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, after Hernandez testified that Avelino Macias would burn Teresa Macias with cigarettes and, despite the restraining order, once followed her to a house where she worked as a cleaner and raped her.

Judge Susan Illston ordered settlement talks a week before the trial began, but the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors didn’t approve the $1 million sum until Tuesday. Lawyers for Sonoma County said the settlement did not include any admission of wrongdoing.

Michael Senneff, the lead attorney for the county, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Domestic violence advocates said the settlement sets a standard in domestic violence cases and sends a message to law enforcement that authorities will be held accountable for how they handle calls for help in such cases.

“It is a victory,” said Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium. “I would have liked to see the trial go further to get a bigger impact in the media and in the community, but this gives the family closure and a chance to get on with their lives.”

Rick Seltzer, the Macias family’s attorney, said the family agreed to the settlement to avoid the possibility of facing years of further appeals. The case began filed in 1996.

“We have to remember that we represent people as well as causes and, with that amount of money, they felt it was time to get closure on it,” Seltzer said.

Two of the three Macias children, both in their late teens, will be using some funds from the settlement to pay for college, Seltzer said.

Monday’s Women’s Enews Report on the Macias Trial

Landmark Domestic Violence Trial Begins

By Rebecca Vesely
WEnews correspondent

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–A landmark civil rights trial that could make law enforcement liable when domestic violence victims are injured or killed by their batterers opened in federal court here Monday.

In a situation familiar to nearly all law enforcement officials and domestic violence workers, Maria Teresa Macias, a 36-year-old immigrant from Mexico, was shot to death in Sonoma, Calif., by her estranged husband in 1996 before he turned the gun on himself. Her family is suing the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department for $15 million, alleging that officers denied the woman her constitutional rights to equal protection under the law.

Macias spoke little English and at the time of her death was two weeks shy of receiving her permanent resident visa. She sought help from the sheriff’s department on at least 18 occasions in the year leading up to her murder by husband Avelino Macias, according to court documents. In the last three months of her life, she called the department at least 14 times. Her husband was never arrested or detained for repeated violations of a restraining order. Violation of a restraining order for stalking is a felony in California.

The case could set a precedent for domestic violence victims who call on police to protect them from their batterers, and especially for immigrant women who are at a disadvantage when they do not speak English. About 34 percent of Latinas and 25 percent of Filipinas in California have experienced domestic violence, according to the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights. As many as 1 million to 3 million women in the United States are physically abused by their husbands or male companions each year, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

“If this landmark trial goes in favor of the victim, it sends the message that law enforcement is liable,” says Leni Marin, managing director for the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a national nonprofit advocacy group in San Francisco. “The burden is on law enforcement, not the victim, to provide language translation and cultural understanding.”

Defense Strategy: Deputies Must Find ‘Probable Cause’ for Arrest

Lawyers for Macias’s mother and three children, who are bringing the suit, allege that Sonoma County sheriff’s officers did not write information down, respond to calls for help or file appropriate reports. Although deputies told Macias to keep a written log of her interactions with her husband and submit them to the sheriff as evidence, when she did so, those documents were never translated into English or read, according to Richard Seltzer, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer.

Most damaging, Seltzer says, was the failure to arrest her husband for more than eight alleged violations of a restraining order. The surviving Macias family believes the inaction emboldened the husband to continue harassing Teresa Macias and eventually leading to the fatal encounter, Seltzer says.

In opening statements Monday, Michael Senneff, defense attorney for former Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Ihde and deputies named in the suit, argued that singling out the sheriff’s department from other county and city agencies does not take into account the complexity of the case. The sheriff’s department requested prosecution of the husband on three occasions, Senneff said, but all were denied by the district attorney.

Senneff also said that in many instances in the case, there was “no threat of physical violence or injury.” The sheriff’s department has a policy of requiring deputies to report violations of a restraining order only if there is probable cause–that is, that they see evidence of potential or actual abuse.

“The mere existence of a restraining order doesn’t make it enforceable,” Senneff told the court.

Seltzer disagreed, arguing that allowing deputies to arrest restraining-order violators at their discretion is unusual. “This unwritten policy by the sheriff’s department left the restraining order meaningless,” Seltzer said.

“The best tool for preventing domestic violence homicides is to enforce the laws, to enforce restraining orders,” he said. “The sheriff’s department never gave the criminal justice system a chance to stop Avelino Macias.”

‘There Is the Nagging Feeling That the Woman Brought It on Herself’

Domestic violence experts say law enforcement agencies nationwide still have a long way to go in understanding domestic violence.

“A lot of law enforcement agencies are still not taking domestic violence seriously,” says Marin of the Family Violence Prevention Fund. “It is still seen as a very private matter and there is the nagging feeling that the woman brought it on herself; those stereotypes are still very present.”

The Macias couple married in 1980 in Mexico and later moved to bucolic Sonoma County, known for its wine vineyards, where Teresa Macias worked as a housecleaner and her husband as a laborer. It is unclear when the abuse started, but Teresa Macias told authorities that her husband physically, sexually and emotionally abused her for years. She also reported that he sexually abused one of their children and physically and emotionally abused all three.

In 1995, Teresa Macias fled with her children to a women’s shelter, where she filed a police report against her husband and obtained a restraining order. However, she soon returned to her home and Avelino Macias rejoined her and the children.

She recanted her allegations of abuse in a follow-up interview with police, according to court documents. After Avelino Macias moved back into the house, the Department of Child Protective Services of Sonoma County placed the three Macias children in foster care on grounds of child endangerment. After her children were removed, Seltzer says, Teresa Macias suffered a nervous breakdown. Her mother, Sara Hernandez, arrived from Mexico and helped evict the increasingly abusive Avelino Macias and obtain another restraining order.

He continued to stalk his estranged wife, however, and even threatened to kill her, witnesses say. His tactics included forcing his way inside homes where she and her mother cleaned houses or blocking her car so she could not leave. He would often wait for her in the parking lot of the school where she took English classes at night, according to Seltzer. The pattern became familiar: an encounter with Avelino Macias, then a call to the sheriff’s department.

The Macias family contends that officers discouraged Teresa Macias from calling the sheriff’s department and that officers would fail to arrive on the scene. In one instance, the responding officer could not find the house where Teresa Macias was calling from and gave up looking for it, according Seltzer. On another occasion, an officer allegedly told a witness that Teresa Macias was overreacting to her husband’s behavior, according to court documents.

Defense lawyer Senneff told the court that Child Protective Services evaluated both parents after the children were placed in foster care and found that Teresa Macias has “a profile consistent with a thought disorder with paranoid features.” The defense plans to elaborate on this evaluation during the trial.

Two Spiral Notebooks Detail Abuse

On April 15, 1996, Teresa Macias was cleaning a house with her mother when Avelino Macias showed up. He shot both women and then fatally shot himself. Hernandez suffered two gunshot wounds to the leg and survived, but her daughter died from a shot to the head. When officers arrived they found two spiral notebooks in which Teresa Macias had documented the continued abuse, as requested by the sheriff’s department. They also found two audio cassette tapes of phone messages that Avelino Macias had left on her answering machine.

Tanya Brannan, founder of the Purple Berets, a women’s advocacy group in Sonoma that helped the family find a lawyer and bring the suit to trial, says that winning the case would send a message to law enforcement authorities across the country.

“If there are no teeth behind domestic violence laws, they won’t be enforced,” Brannan says. “For instance, sexual harassment laws became stronger long ago but it wasn’t until women won significant court cases against employers that things started to change in the workplace.”

Rebecca Vesely is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

For more information:

Purple Berets:

Women’s Justice Center:

Family Violence Prevention Fund: