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National NOW Times >> August 1995 >> Article

NOW Applauds VAWA Victory

by Brennan Ames, NOW Intern

In a victory hailed by NOW and other battered women's advocates, the first case prosecuted under a new federal law has resulted in the conviction of a West Virginia man who put his wife in a coma.

What began as an argument one night in a St. Albans, W.Va., bar between Sonya and Christopher Bailey, ended six days later in a Corbin, Ky., hospital. According to court testimony, Bailey beat his wife into unconsciousness Nov. 26 and locked her in the trunk of her car. He then drove back and forth between West Virginia and Kentucky for six days, but never sought medical attention for his wife. Sonya Bailey, 33, lapsed into a coma and remains in a vegetative state.

Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), crossing a state line to assault a spouse or domestic partner is now a federal crime punishable by a sentence of up to 20 years or life in prison.

"We are very pleased both that we have this new law and with the way this first case was handled," said Charlotte Henline, West Virginia NOW president. "It helps emphasize that domestic violence is a national issue, and not only a state issue."

Bailey's lawyer contended that his client was in an alcoholic blackout and never meant to hurt his wife. Bailey testified in court that he was not sure if he had inflicted his wife's injuries. He said he could only remember coming out of his blackout and finding his wife's bloody body.

"His defense wasn't effective, relevant or appropriate," said prosecutor Rebecca Betts, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. "His blackout only lasted the first day; he came out of it before he left the state of West Virginia."

Bailey said he was afraid to seek medical care for his wife for fear of being questioned. Instead, he attempted to care for her himself. Had he sought help, Mrs. Bailey's injuries would have been greatly reduced.

According to doctors, the worst damage was caused by blood, oxygen and fluid loss during the week in which she was held captive by her husband. Doctors predict that Sonya Bailey will have a normal life expectancy in a permanent vegetative state.

Betts said that Bailey now faces up to life in prison for the kidnapping conviction and up to 20 years for the permanent disfigurement conviction. Had he been convicted under state law, he would have faced only a maximum of 10 years in prison, according to Betts. His sentencing has been set for August 21.

The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF) is establishing a legal clearinghouse on violence against women to address the legal remedies found in VAWA. The clearinghouse will collect and monitor litigation and related developments.

Betts, meanwhile, will instruct federal magistrates on the criminal portions of the new law this summer. She is set to help conduct conferences in three states financed by the $1.6 billion law, but that portion of the VAWA funding is in jeopardy from the congressional budget axe.

House Appropriations committees dramatically reduced funding promised for VAWA programs in two separate bills. VAWA programs for 1996 totalled $175 million in the Commerce, State, Judiciary appropriations bill, yet less than $75 million was allocated. This bill included specific programs to train and educate federal and state judges and court personnel on violence against women; none of these training programs were funded in the committee bill. The Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill was slated to fund $62 million of VAWA programs, yet the subcommittee allocated only $400,000 in their bill. After much pressure from VAWA advocates, the full committee agreed to restore $40 million of the missing funds. Nonetheless, VAWA programs for the next fiscal year will only be funded at about half the amount they were authorized to receive.

"Judges need a lot more education to counter the pervasive myths about violence," said NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy, a former prosecutor. "For example, it's very traumatic for a woman to be abused by someone she trusted. But some people still think date rape or spousal rape is no big deal."

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