Prosecutors focus on stalking

Published 8:03 pm Friday, January 25, 2013

Stalking ruins lives and often involves sexual violence where the victim and offender already know each other.

As it is around the nation, stalking is a complicated problem in Suffolk, Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson said recently during a discussion about National Stalking Awareness Month.

“We might see a stalking issue with a sexual assault or domestic violence case,” Ferguson said.

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There are two distinct forms of stalking, he said: love-obsession stalking and stalking by a stranger who often has a mental disorder.

But 70 to 80 percent of stalking occurs in a domestic situation, he said.

Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Marie Walls, who prosecutes a large number of Suffolk’s stalking cases, described a recent one that she said was typical of their often-complicated nature.

A man and woman were in a long-term relationship resulting in three children when she decided it was finally time to end it.

She’d been trying to get out for some time after “deciding it wasn’t going to work,” Walls said.

“He began sitting out on the road watching her,” the attorney continued. “She went out with a new man and he broke into the house, held her down and assaulted her and attempted to take the TV.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to have someone else watching my TV and going out with my wife.’”

The man was charged with attempted rape and larceny, both felonies carrying stiffer penalties than stalking, a misdemeanor.

“Stalking would be more difficult to prove,” Walls said. “We try to charge what we feel we can prove and what’s going to get the most justice.”

The National Institute of Justice defines stalking as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.”

Stalkers often send victims unwanted messages, lie in wait for them and damage or threaten to damage their property, the institute says.

In the information age, stalking often occurs online by posting personal information or spreading rumors.

A problem with stalking, Ferguson said, is that victims often don’t believe that what they’re experiencing rises to the level of actual stalking.

Another problem is fear of retribution, but any stalking conviction by law has to include a protective order prohibiting contact between victim and offender.

People who believe they are being stalked are encouraged to call 911 if in imminent danger, tell law enforcement, file charges, obtain a protective order, document the alleged crime and gather evidence.