After a few days of media attention, the accusations of domestic violence against New York Gov. David Paterson’s aide dropped off the radar. Aide David Johnson says he’ll be vindicated ; so far, he hasn’t even been charged. Now that it’s clear that Gov. Paterson won’t immediately resign as a result of the accusations that he encouraged his aide and friend’s accuser not to pursue the matter, few people are still interested. But there’s at least one subset of men and women who are still tuned in.
David Johnson’s live-in partner at the time, Sherr-una Booker, told the Bronx family court that Johnson choked her, pushed her into a piece of furniture and took her phone so that she couldn’t call the police. Choking is a common form of domestic abuse-it’s what Chris Brown is said to have done to Rihanna, and Charlie Sheen is accused of doing to his wife-and it’s also considered a warning sign of more serious violence . But under New York law, choking is barely considered a misdemeanor (which would carry a maximum sentence of one year in jail), because it leaves little or no sign of serious injury. The officers who responded to Booker’s eventual call apparently thought the incident she described didn’t even reach that level; they wrote a report for the violation “harassment,” which could-but rarely does-result in a 15-day sentence. Advocates are working to change this (choking in a domestic context has been specifically designated as a felony in several states)-but that 15-day maximum penalty (with a $250 fine) doesn’t stand out as much of a deterrent, or as much of an incentive for a victim of violence to involve the legal system in the first place.
When I prosecuted domestic violence cases in Manhattan, I met many victims, both of serious assaults and of those the law regards as trivial, who were convinced that the courts couldn’t help. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office may be investigating or awaiting the results of Special Counsel Judith Kaye’s investigation into Paterson’s conduct . There may be excellent, but unrevealed, reasons not to pursue the accusations against Johnson (although what’s often referred to as Booker’s “failure to press charges” should not be one of them, as New York state has a policy of pursuing domestic violence cases without regard to the wishes of the accuser). But to a victim of domestic violence, the fact that David Johnson seems unscathed is one more reason not to pick up the phone.