Desk of the DA: Domestic violence awareness

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore is focusing on domestic violence in her monthly message. In light of the recent Friedlander family murder-suicide in Cross River, it’s a message that is more than appropriate.

Every October, along with the leaves changing color, the color purple appears on ribbons and pins on lapels and signs posted in our neighborhoods as a way to promote Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As chief law enforcement officer and District Attorney of Westchester County, I would like to share with you the work that my office is doing to keep victims of domestic violence and their children safe, to hold offenders accountable for the crimes they commit, and to engage in public education strategies to prevent domestic violence.

Domestic violence occurs when an intimate partner exerts undue power and control over his (or less often, her) partner, using methods of control that can range from physical violence to emotional, verbal, sexual and even financial abuse. Nationally, nearly one in four women reports experiencing violence inflicted by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in time. In New York State, almost half the women murdered are killed by an intimate partner. It is likely that someone you know has been or will be a victim of domestic violence. And for victims of domestic violence, choosing to leave an abusive partner can be difficult because of fear, and because of the emotional and financial ties that bind families together.

In the District Attorney’s Office, we prosecute all offenders who have committed acts of domestic abuse that violate our criminal laws. Our specially trained prosecutors seek to hold offenders accountable while finding outcomes that will be safest for victims and their children. Assisting our prosecutors is our team of domestic violence aides who assist victims in navigating the legal system, creating safety plans and linking victims to service resources. In 2010, my office handled over 2,700 cases of domestic violence in Westchester County. We anticipate that this year our case load will reach 3,000.

In order to provide support to victims of domestic violence on site near the District Attorney’s Office and the Courthouse in White Plains, in May 2010, Westchester County’s Family Justice Center opened its doors. This centralized, one-stop resource is located adjacent to the District Attorney’s Office and provides safety planning, legal assistance, counseling and other services for domestic violence victims and their children in one secure location. The Center is a collaboration between the District Attorney’s Office and the County’s Office for Women, and is supported by a federal grant. In 2010, the Center served and assisted 600 victims of domestic violence.

This month, my office is joining with our domestic violence partner agencies in a county-wide campaign to “Shine the Light on Domestic Violence.” The Special Prosecutions Division of my office will be distributing information as well as purple lapel ribbons which are symbolic of domestic violence awareness during the month of October. We will also be participating in important public education initiatives. On October 15, 2011, my office will be once again taking part in a seminar presented by the African American Men of Westchester, “Stop the Violence, Men Speaking to Men to Stop Violence against Women.” The goal of this event is to reach out to young men to promote positive, respectful relationships between intimate partners. On October 19, 2011, my office will participate in the annual Domestic Violence Police Training, and I will address police officers from around the county on the importance of their work on domestic violence. The conference will provide these law enforcement officers updates in the law and safety strategies when responding to a domestic violence call. These educational efforts are an integral part of my commitment to addressing domestic violence in Westchester County.

If you need immediate assistance, always call 911. For the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, please call 1-800-942-6906 (English) or 1-800-942-6908 (Spanish). For more information, please visit our website at www.westchesterda.net or the Family Justice Center website at http://women.westchestergov.com/about-us/family-justice-center.

Women’s Justice Center turns 20

The Women’s Justice Center at Pace Law School in White Plains will celebrate its 20th anniversary this October, which happens to be National Domestic Violence Awareness Month with a benefit dinner and silent auction on Wednesday, Oct. 19.

The Justice Center is a nonprofit legal center in the law school with a mission to help end domestic violence and elder abuse through legal representation, training, community education and outreach. It has become one of the largest civil legal services providers in Westchester County, with 13 staff attorneys and pro bono lawyers who have donated more than 7,200 hours to about 2,800 clients.

The Justice Center also has walk-in courthouse offices in White Plains and Yonkers that offer frontline, often life-saving emergency legal services for domestic violence survivors. The center also runs elder law clinics, a legal helpline and a “moderate means matrimonial panel” that matches middle-income clients with low-fee or sliding scale attorneys.

This year’s benefit dinner, “Celebrating 20 Years of Justice for Women,” will start at 6 p.m. at Abigail Kirsch at Tappan Hill in Tarrytown. Deadline to RSVP is October 5. For more information on the event or the Pace Women’s Justice Center, visit www.law.pace.edu/wjc or call Woodrina Harris at (914) 422-4069.

Coello’s brief court appearance sparks anger, grief

Eddy Coello was only in court for a few minutes today, but his appearance was an emotional one for the family of his wife, who he is accused of killing.

Tina Adovasio’s former mother-in-law wept when Coello was brought out, handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit from the Department of Corrections. Another female family member yelled  “Coward!” as he was escorted out of the courtroom.

Coello, an ex-New York City police officer, showed no emotion at the outburst, or any part of his brief  appearance in Bronx County courthouse, where Coello’s lawyer and a prosecutor and  updated the judge on their progress of exchanging evidence and information, known in legal terms as discovery.

Judge Miriam Best set his next court appearance for Oct. 26.Coello, 38, is charged with second-degree murder. He is accused of killing Adovasio in the Bronx and dumping her badly-beaten body in the woods near the Mohansic Golf Course, off the Taconic State Parkway in Yorktown.

Adovasio, who lived in the Bronx, was divorcing Coello, who her family said had repeatedly abused her. Coello left the NYPD in 2000 while being investigated for domestic violence with another woman.Prosecutors have said physical evidence, surveillance video and Coello’s own words would show that he strangled his wife late March 11 or early March 12, carried away her body and then dumped it in Yorktown.

Adovasio, 40, worked as a maternity nurse at Sound Shore Medical Center. She had four children, including a 5-year-old daughter with Coello. The girl is living with Adovasio’s parents in Dutchess County. Her other children, ages 11, 15 and 16, are living with their father.

Top photo:  Coello at a previous court appearance, with his lawyer, Renee Hill. Bottom: Adovasio, family photo.

Mount Vernon mom arraigned on manslaughter, strangulation charges

A 28-year-old Mount Vernon mother pleaded not guilty today to charges that she strangled her boyfriend in March and waited until the next day to call for help.

Tywana Kerr (left) was indicted last week on a charge of second-degree manslaughter and first-degree strangulation, both felonies, in the death of Anthony “Rickie” Lowery. The 43-year-old father of three was found on Kerr’s bed the morning of March 15.

According to court papers, Kerr told police that they had an argument about him spending the night. She said the argument turned physical and he collapsed to the floor. She then pulled him onto the bed and went to sleep. The next morning, Kerr said she called 911 after saying Lowery was unresponsive, the court papers stated.

She was arrested later that day.  Police said she admitted on video to choking Lowery.

Kerr, the mother of a 2- and a 4-year-old, is being held without bail. She faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Members of Lowery’s family have said the two had been dating for months and they were unaware of any domestic violence in the relationship. Lowery, who also lived in Mount Vernon, worked in construction and landscaping for local churches, according to his family. He has a son, 22, and two daughters, ages 12 and 13.

The strangulation charge is among three criminal charges that took effect in November to address the choking of victims. Criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation is a misdemeanor, and first- and second-degree strangulation, are both felonies. Under prior law, someone could be choked nearly to death, but the attacker could go unpunished if there were no visible physical injuries. Now, an attacker can be charged after choking or suffocating someone, regardless of injury.

The new laws, targeted at domestic violence, has resulted in thousands of arrests in recent months, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Convicted mayor called for jury duty

Put this one in the “irony” file.

White Plains Mayor Adam Bradley, who declined to be tried by jury on domestic violence charges and was convicted instead at a bench trial, was called for jury duty today on the third floor of the Westchester County Courthouse.

Bradley should be well acquainted with the courthouse by now. He has made numerous appearances there since his arrest a year ago. It was where, after a lengthy trial, he was found guilty of attempted assault and criminal contempt of court, both misdemeanors, and three counts of harassment, a violation. It’s also the same building where his divorce proceedings are being held.

Today, Bradley was among more than two dozen other members of the public who were called for the murder retrial of Selwyn Days, a former Mount Vernon man accused of killing Eastchester millionaire Archie Harris and his home health worker Betty Ramcharan in 1996. The trial is expected to last 4 to 6 weeks.

I’m guessing that Westchester County Judge Barry Warhit, who will preside over the Days trial, isn’t going to let him be on the jury.

Political intrigue, personal tragedy in Westchester court

The political career of White Plains Mayor Adam Bradley was dealt a blow today when he was found guilty of domestic violence charges, convicted of attempted assault,  criminal contempt and harassment of his wife, Fumiko Bradley. Read more about the case and Bradley’s reaction here.

The courtroom was packed with media, attorneys and many interested onlookers. Bradley walked into court at 9:30 a.m. and sat in the gallery next to his private spokesman, Darren Grubb. Acting state Supreme Court Justice Susan Capeci allowed cameras in the courtroom — a rarity in Westchester County Court. But to avoid a dozen photographers and videographers in the jury box, the judge asked The Journal News to be the pool photographer and WABC7 to be the pool videographer.

The judge walked in at 9:40 a.m. She took about a minute to read her verdict. She convicted the mayor of two misdemeanors and three violations but acquitted him of three misdemeanor counts of assault and one of witness tampering. She offered no explanation of how she reached her decision.

By 9:45 a.m., the courtroom was cleared so Capeci could take other cases.

One floor above the Bradley proceeding, a personal tragedy was unfolding for two families. Westchester County Judge James Hubert sentenced 16-year-old Brain Sabia to seven years in prison for smashing into Irvington Police Officer Luigi Osso in April, nearly killing him with a stolen car. Osso, who requires round-the-clock care, came to court with his wife, personal nurse and a throng of supporters, including several Irvington officers. Sabia, who was prosecuted as an adult, apologized for putting so many people through “hell.” Osso didn’t speak, but his wife’s victim impact statement was heartbreaking. You can read about the court proceeding and case here.

A lighter moment in mayor’s domestic violence trial

At every trial, no matter how grave the allegations, there are moments of levity. It was no different today during the domestic violence trial of White Plains Mayor Adam Bradley (left) in Westchester County Court.

When one witness — a friend and neighbor of the Bradleys — was asked if she could identify the  mayor in the courtroom, she described a man wearing “a dark suit, red tie and light blue shirt.”

One problem — Bradley’s lawyer, Luis Andrew Penichet, was wearing the exact same ensemble.

When Judge Susan Capeci pointed this out, the courtroom filled with laughter and Penichet threw up his arms and said he would stipulate that the witness was describing his client.

The rest of the trial was serious, as Penichet defended the mayor against six misdemeanor charges and three violations that include assault, witness tampering and harassment. Two White Plains police officers and the Bradley’s neighbor took the stand, but their testimony took a back seat to that of Fumiko Bradley, the mayor’s wife, who brought the original charges against her husband in February.

To read more about the trial’s first day, click here.

A trial so Blue

markblueThe third floor of the Westchester County Courthouse was lined with prospective jurors today for the upcoming trial of Mark Blue.

Blue, 45, is accused of repeatedly stabbing his girlfriend during a March 2008 argument in Mount Vernon, according to the DA’s office. Blue allegedly held the woman captive and watched as she nearly bled to death, the DA’s office claims.

Blue fled the state, but police found him months later in Portland, Ore. and brought him back. He is charged with attempted murder, assault and unlawful imprisonment.

Westchester courthouse to get $1M family center

This just in from U.S. Rep Nita Lowey … a $1 million federal grant for the county courthouse:

WASHINGTON — Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-Westchester/Rockland) today announced the Westchester County Office for Women (OFW) will receive a $1 million federal grant to establish a Family Justice Center at the White Plains Court Complex.

“The Westchester County OFW has a proven track record of providing critical assistance to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking,” said Lowey.  “I am thrilled this grant will enable OFW to continue and expand its important work.”

Lowey assisted the Westchester County OFW’s grant application to the U.S. Department of Justice by sending a letter of support in March 2009.

In its first 10 years of existence, the OFW has served more than 8,000 women.  Additionally, 300 law students have been trained to assist women in need of assistance.

The $1 million grant will enable Westchester County to establish a Family Justice Center (FJC) at the White Plains Court Complex to expand and enhance the work of the program and provide training for police officers, prosecutors, the judiciary, advocates, and service providers.

Additionally, the Westchester County OFW will install an automated victim notification of protective orders (VNPO) system to enable victims to access the status of an order of protection 24 hours a day.  These important services will be available to the entire Westchester population of nearly 1 million people.