RICHMOND, Va. — She was 23 years into her marriage when her husband swung a hammer at her head – and missed. He later was convicted of a felony, and they divorced.
But what happened next was almost as shocking as the assault: Her ex-husband asked the court to award him spousal support – and won.
The Richmond-area woman’s story prompted a state legislator to propose a bill that would prohibit courts from awarding alimony to a spouse who has been convicted of domestic violence.
HB 2105, sponsored by Del. Christopher Peace, R-Mechanicsville, died last week in the House Courts of Justice Committee. But the victim who inspired the legislation hopes her story eventually will lead to changes in the law.
“I’m stuck with paying spousal support forever, but if there’s a chance for someone else to not go through what I had to go through, I will fight for that,” she said.
Capital News Service contacted the woman with help from Peace’s office. She asked that her name not be published because she feared for her safety.
The woman said the events unfolded this way:
Her husband hadn’t been violent until 2011, when the woman – who was the breadwinner in the family – had major back surgery and had to spend the entire summer at home recuperating. She was limited in her mobility. Her husband was on disability and at home full-time.
One night in August 2011, everything changed. The woman said her husband nailed shut all the windows and the door in the bedroom, crushed her cell phone, home phone and laptop with a hammer to eliminate any means of communication, and threatened to kill anyone who would come by with a loaded shotgun.
After trapping her in their bedroom for most of the night, the man forced her to go on a car ride with him. The woman described her husband driving erratically, speeding and without wearing a seatbelt. At one point, he unbuckled her seatbelt, turned and said: “We are going to die tonight.”
Eventually, he turned onto a dirt road, stopped the car, got out and walked over to the passenger side where she was sitting. That’s when she saw the hammer in his hand. Standing outside the car, he raised the hammer and swung it toward her head. But it did not make contact.
Then, just as abruptly, the man got back in the car and drove back home.
Her husband was charged with domestic assault and battery and abduction; he pleaded guilty to the domestic assault and battery charge in October 2011 (the felony was set aside).
The woman had a protective order against her estranged husband. After his guilty plea, he was convicted on multiple violations of the protective order. As a result, he was brought back to court to face the felony abduction charge. In October 2013, he pleaded guilty to that offense.
The victim filed for divorce while her husband was incarcerated in 2011 for the assault and battery charge. She was granted use of their home and resided there until November 2013, when the house was sold. The couple’s divorce was final in January 2013.
Shortly after his first incarceration, the man filed for emergency spousal support and won. The spousal support was upheld at final divorce negotiations.
The woman said the main factors the court looks at when considering who must pay alimony are the length of the marriage and the financial situation – not the fact that one spouse has been convicted of attacking the other.
After dealing with the shock of having to pay spousal support, she is trying her best to make sure that other victims of domestic assault or violence aren’t put in the same situation.
“I was completely blindsided by it,” she said. “Even when my ex-husband was incarcerated for the felony conviction, I still had to pay spousal support to him, even though he did not receive his disability income while incarcerated.”
In August 2013, the woman reached out to Peace, who has been active on several fronts in combating domestic violence. In January 2014, Peace wrote an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Lawmakers Can Protect Young Dreams”; in it, he expressed his commitment to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence in Virginia and outlined ways to do that.
This legislative session, for example, Peace filed House Bill 2092, which would establish a state advisory committee on sexual and domestic violence. The committee would help state and local programs do a better job of addressing those problems. HB 2092 passed the House unanimously and is awaiting action by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
When Peace heard about the battered spouse who was ordered to pay support to her assailant, he couldn’t help but think this was adding insult to injury. As a result, he drafted HB 2105, which says courts shall not award support to a spouse if that person was convicted of a rape or a felony assault on his or her partner. The offense covered in the bill included shooting, stabbing and malicious wounding.
The rule would apply if the conviction occurred within five years before the filing of the petition for divorce or at any time thereafter, “unless the spouse seeking support proves by a preponderance of the evidence that a denial of support would be unconscionable.”
The measure also said, “Spousal support shall be terminated if the spouse to whom it was awarded was subsequently convicted of any violation” of those crimes.
The bill was assigned to the Civil Law Subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee. On Jan. 21, the subcommittee recommended that the bill be tabled, and no further action was taken on it. As a result, HB 2105 was declared dead on Feb. 10 – the deadline for bills to clear their house of origin.
But the woman who inspired the legislation isn’t giving up.
“I have hope that once the language is adjusted to address issues from all sides, that the bill will indeed be introduced again,” she said.
By Noura Bayoumi/Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of the VCU School of Mass Communications. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.