A restraining order should protect a victim of domestic violence, and usually it does. But three times in the past year, the papers couldn't stop bullets.
Early next year, one of those cases of domestic homicide goes to trial in Burke County. District Attorney Danny Craig will seek the death penalty for Willie Palmer if a jury convicts him of murder in the shooting deaths of his estranged wife, Brenda Palmer, and stepdaughter Christine Jenkins.
"I don't think (a domestic homicide) is any less grievous at all" when compared to a killing between strangers, District Attorney Danny Craig said. "It's different from others in that ... it's a crime of passion usually at the home of a victim and often no one knows of the danger until it ends in murder."
Eleven days before the bodies of Ms. Palmer and 15-year-old Christine were discovered in their home Sept. 12, 1995, Mr. Palmer was released from jail on a consent order. He had been jailed for just over a month for violating a restraining order.
Four months later in Richmond County, police would be called to another woman's home, where Jacqueline Williams was shot to death New Year's Day. Less than two months after she obtained a restraining order against her husband, he broke into her Hephzibah home with a gun. Fredrick Williams pleaded guilty to murder last month, avoiding the possibility of the electric chair. He received a sentence of life plus 20 years.
And nine months after Ms. Williams died, police were called to another domestic homicide, this time at the victim's workplace.
Kenneth Rhodes burst into the lounge where his estranged wife worked Sept. 7 and shot Patricia Rhodes to death and wounded two others. Less than 24 hours before, he was released from jail where he was serving time for battering Ms. Rhodes. Last month, he pleaded guilty to murder and received a life sentence.
"She was scared," said Ms. Rhodes' daughter, Sharon Thompson. Although Mr. Rhodes had abused his wife repeatedly, she was scared to have him arrested because he always told her he would kill her if she did, Ms. Thompson said.
"It's so hard to predict where they're coming from," said Nancy Nelson, director of Safe Homes of Augusta. Most people faced with going to jail won't violate a restraining order, but there's no way to tell who will.
If someone has a history of sleeping in cell bunks, the threat of going to jail for violating a judge's order might not scare him as it would a man with a clean record and a steady job, Ms. Nelson said.
But neither Mr. Williams nor Mr. Rhodes had a criminal past.
Ms. Rhodes' daughter believes that the court still should have taken Mr. Rhodes' threats to kill his wife seriously and that all threats should be taken seriously.
"The man went around telling everyone what he was going to do and he did it," Ms. Thompson said. If he hadn't been released from jail, "My mama would still be alive."
"Normally we find a restraining order is effective, but by no means is it a guarantee (a victim) will be safe," said Becky Balliew of the Richmond County State Court Solicitor's Office Victim/Witness Assistance Program.
She estimated that 45 to 60 battery cases are heard each week in State Court and that most are domestic cases. She added that many of the women are scared they could become another tragedy like Ms. Rhodes, Ms. Williams or Ms. Palmer.
"You never know - that's the bottom line," said Superior Court Judge Robert Lyn Allgood. He issued the restraining order against Mr. Williams. "He's a perfect example. (Mr. Williams had no criminal history) and there was no indication at the hearing that he would not comply with the restraining order."
Court officials and those who help battered women estimate that about 300 restraining orders have been issued so far this year. Judge Allgood said it's unusual for the orders to be violated.
Capt. Gene Johnson of the Richmond County Jail said it's rare to see inmates accused of violating restraining orders; the ones who are in jail usually spend only a day or two behind bars.
Because a restraining order is issued based just on what the alleged victim of domestic violence says, a hearing is held within 10 days to ensure the person accused of being a danger is given the chance to present his side, Judge Allgood said. He estimated 1 percent or less of the allegations of abuse are without merit.
If he determines that a restraining order should remain in effect, Judge Allgood lectures both sides, stressing to the one being restrained that any violation will result in jail, and stressing to the one being protected that any violation must be reported immediately.
Violation of a restraining order is contempt of court, punishable by 20 days in jail and a $500 fine, Judge Allgood said. Although the local jail is seriously overcrowded and the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit, Judge Allgood said he won't hesitate to put a violator in jail.
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