Crime & Courts

Seeking the truth and protecting the vulnerable in Anchorage's domestic violence court

Suzanne Cole started her early summer day behind a stack of purple folders, in a small Anchorage office surrounded by shelves of folders. To get to the office, she had to walk through a room with more shelves filled with thousands and thousands of purple folders — most representing an Alaskan's accusation of domestic violence against another, and the rest for stalking.

All are requests for protection.

Thousands of such requests are filed at the Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage each year. Cole is one of several court employees who must sort through them during hearings held in a spacious courtroom where once-lovers, friends and roommates are left to feud — usually without attorneys and without an audience except a court clerk and security guard.

Cole has 19 years of experience at this high-emotion, high-drama job and is currently Anchorage's most experienced magistrate judge handling protective orders in a city where about four out of every 10 women have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

Currently, Cole shares the duty of hearing petitions for civil, one-year protective orders with six other magistrate judges. Back when she was just one of two, the job nearly burned her out.

"We get the sort of underbelly of the world in all types of cases. Domestic violence is no special category in that way," Cole said. "But it's that people are sort of at their worst and usually unrepresented (by an attorney) and often in a crisis. And the calendars are big, so you don't get to devote hours to one case."

[Anchorage court brings together resources for domestic violence victims]

But Cole said she feels committed to the work. For her, the city's courtroom is an environment with a distinct mission: to provide easy access to legal protection for anyone who needs it. Serving the mission can be complicated and exhausting.

The petitioners' situations can vary widely each day, from a person in a dangerous and violent intimate relationship to a messy teenage fling, rife with mean text messages and rumors. Cole must parse though sometimes rambling or combative dialogue to find the truth and decide who needs protection.

The complexities of domestic violence show up in the courtroom too. Some people will appear time and time again seeking protective orders and then withdrawing them. About half of those who filed for a one-year protective order in the first six months of 2016 — and who did not withdraw their petitions — didn't show up for their court dates, according to court records.

"I think that sometimes people file in the heat of the moment and then they change their minds once things settle down," Cole said. "I also think there are some people whose lives are so overwhelming that they don't show up."

Just before 9 a.m. on a day in June, Cole zipped into her black robe and grabbed her thermos of coffee. She walked into the courtroom and the gray fog that surrounds people who are often confused and overwhelmed. At times during the hearings that followed, she had to distinguish aggressive people from the merely angry, and gauge if the heartbroken might be in harm's way.

Court-ordered protection

Cole had 14 hearings on the two-hour-long schedule that day, but judging by the dozen or so people waiting on wooden benches in the courtroom, the workload appeared manageable. Many people who had hearings scheduled chose not to come to court.

One by one, Cole went through the hearings, calling people to the front of the room. Those sitting on the wooden benches stayed quiet. Cole described the morning as "fairly typical."

There were two women who said they were stalked by other women, there was violence between parents, and a hearing with two angry roommates. Another woman walked to the front of the room with her young son and was trying to get protection from a man police had not been able to find. Cole heard from a mother who feared for her daughter after a summer barbecue. There was also a woman seeking protection from a tearful man who said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"That always just pulls on my heartstrings," Cole said after court ended for the morning and she returned to her office. "While they're suffering from PTSD, they're scary and someone deserves protection from that. I don't blame him but I think she deserves to be safe."

Cole remained patient, yet direct, that day in court as she listened to both sides, asked questions and played referee.

One of the more difficult parts of civil court for her is parsing through people's statements, which can quickly get off-topic and emotional without attorneys. In the courtroom, Cole often had to explain what she could and could not do as a magistrate judge. Handling misconceptions about the courtroom is a daily chore. She could not demand someone give back house keys or pay rent, for instance. She could not file criminal charges.

But she could issue specific instructions, writing down all of the places a person could not go near, including homes, workplaces and schools. She could also deal with child and spousal support, as well as visitation rights. She could require treatment programs for anything from alcohol to substance abuse to domestic violence intervention, she said.

By the end of two hours, Cole had granted two one-year domestic violence protective orders and two six-month protective orders for stalking, typing up the orders and printing them out from the bench.

Those pieces of paper are just one tool victims can use for protection but are by no means a cure-all.

"I always say to people in court: 'It's just a piece of paper and it's only as good as your willingness to enforce it. You need to do safety planning because it is only a piece of paper,'" Cole said. "If somebody has a gun, that piece of paper is not going to protect you."

A piece of paper

The Alaska court system aims to make the process of requesting protective orders simple for domestic violence. Everyone who wants a court date gets one.

"It's one of the few things that you can file at any time without paying a fee," Cole said. "So people file to resolve problems that probably don't belong there, so you're having to sort through all that."

Within the first six months of 2016, the Anchorage court had received about 1,470 petitions for short-term domestic violence protective orders that last 20 days. The court had scheduled hearings for another 1,051 long-term hearings for one-year orders, according to the state court system.

Domestic violence victim advocates say that a protective order can help someone keep an abuser away. It's a civil order, and not a criminal offense unless the person violates its instructions and police are called. (However, the named person could also face separate assault charges in criminal court as the civil hearings go on.)

"I think the effectiveness depends on how well the order is crafted and the systematic response that's in place in case the order is violated," said Lauree Morton, executive director of Alaska's Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Violating a domestic violence protective order is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail in some cases. First-time offenders will more likely face a maximum of 30 days in jail, a $10,000 fine and one year of probation, said Jody Davis, chief assistant municipal prosecutor. In 2015, police referred 208 cases of domestic violence protective order violations to the municipal prosecutor's office, she said.

"You've probably heard this: 'It's just a piece of paper,'" Davis said. "It depends on the person for it to be effective. Do they understand the seriousness of the protective order?"

Things operate differently in the civil court than they do in the criminal system.

Since lawyers are rarely in the courtroom, petitioners and respondents often speak in plain language, airing the private details of their relationships. While Cole moderates, she looks for anything that can corroborate either side, whether it's text messages, witnesses or social media posts.

"Sometimes people print it out," she said. "Or else they literally come in and hand me their phone and I'm on the bench reading through their text messages."

To receive a 20-day protective order, the petitioner must show that it's reasonable to move forward. That proof standard rises to the "preponderance of evidence" to obtain a long-term, one-year protective order. For that, a judge must be convinced it's more likely than not that domestic violence occurred.

Both of these are lower standards than criminal proceedings.

A common thread

Domestic violence has been a thread in Cole's career since before she was a magistrate judge, before she was an Alaskan, even before she went to law school. A self-described "do-gooder" not long out of college in the late 1980s, Cole worked for New York State's Victims Services Agency in the Jamaica section of Queens in New York City, where a police officer was paired with a social worker on domestic violence responses.

It was then that she became familiar with Karen Straw, a victim of repeated and severe domestic violence. In late 1986, after a night of abuse and sexual assault in front of her two children, Straw stabbed her husband to death.

Suddenly, Cole found herself advocating for a victim who was also a criminal defendant. Cole said she called her boss at an earlier job, Ronnie Eldridge, who was then New York state's director of the Division of Women. Together they set up a legal defense fund, found Straw a lawyer and rallied several other women to show up at each hearing to show support.

Eldridge remembers Cole as a young woman motivated to make a difference.

"She was just very diligent, very strong and very interested in it," Eldridge said.

Straw was acquitted of murder in 1987, a hard-won success for the "battered woman's defense," Cole said.

For Cole, it was a personal turning point as well.

"It changed my life," she said. "And it certainly changed my trajectory for my life and how I perceived domestic violence."

A gray area

If the Straw case was one thing that pointed Cole toward law school, the years that followed gave her a perspective that perhaps serves her today as a magistrate judge: Situations aren't always black and white. In her seven years as a public defender, she saw the issue from many oblique angles.

"I had many cases that involved people charged with domestic violence, and people charged with other crimes that I believe or knew were victims of domestic violence," she said. "I think my perception is that domestic violence is the common thread in almost all types of cases. It comes up in everything."

When asked what effect her protective order courtroom has on ridding Anchorage of domestic violence, Cole held her thumb and her index finger only centimeters apart.

Still, she said, the court does carry weight in a couple of meaningful ways. First, it separates people who are in a violent relationship.

"I try to really remember that this is about safety," she said.

Second, victims have a measure of control that they don't have in a criminal court.

"Here they get to say, 'I want to go back,' or 'I want him to pay me,' or whatever else they want. So it's a first step but it's also — well, I should say, I hope — an empowering step," she said.

As Cole left the courtroom that June morning, she grabbed her thermos and her purple folders and, on the way out, told the clerk he should smile more.

Frustrating but important

Weeks later, walking outside the Boney Courthouse in midsummer after a morning in domestic violence court, Cole headed two blocks down Fourth Avenue to help at Anchorage Youth Court. There, Cole, a mother of two, worked with kids who were learning to prosecute, defend and judge others. She said she enjoys the new perspective the young students bring, and she enjoys the change of pace for herself.

"It's a really nice break," she said afterward.

Domestic violence court that morning had a light schedule but grew noisy at one point with frustrated, angry siblings talking over one another. Cole said she found herself explaining, as she has done countless times, that she was there to determine only if domestic violence had likely occurred, whatever other valid complaints they might have.

"What I said to them is, 'Is that what he's posting on Facebook? It's wrong. It's childish. It's shameful. But it's not domestic violence.' "

A steady diet of domestic violence court would be too much, Cole said. And even with the rotation in place now, she can't say the thought of a career change doesn't cross her mind.

"Oh, I think about it all the time," she said. "Mostly what I think about is, 'Wouldn't it be nice to do something where everyone's happy?' Sell ice cream or something?"

But another thought pushes the notion aside, the hope that she is making a difference for some people who truly need the court's help.

"I used to do traffic court. Traffic court doesn't move me in quite the same way," Cole said. "In this, at least I still care."