The XX Factor

Paterson Was Wrong, But Is He Really Reprehensible?

Emily , I think Paterson actually is a victim-of his own terrible judgement, yes, but also of the collective hysteria that surrounds any accusations of domestic violence. After so many years spent looking the other way, we’re determined as a society to hold any man who acts abusively toward a woman (90 percent of domestic violence victims are women) fully accountable. There’s nothing wrong with that-but in doing it, we lose sight of the fact that the rush to criminal justice may not always be the best thing for the actual individual woman involved.

If Paterson sent a state police officer to speak to the ex-girlfriend of his friend and aide David Johnson and even spoke to her himself about the domestic-violence allegations she’d made against Johnson, then what he did was unquestionably intimidating. Governors can’t do that. But if his message to Sherr-una Booker, Johnson’s now ex-partner, was that she would be better off keeping this personal matter out of the courtroom, he might have been right.

I don’t give Paterson any credit for good intentions in trying to use his power to keep the matter private, and I suspect the state police simply wanted Ms. Booker to shut up and go away. I also suspect there’s more to come here. Johnson will be arrested, and if he’s not, we’ll find out why. But I think Paterson’s political opponents are seizing on a feeling that their position is so utterly unassailable-not only did he try to discourage a victim from going to court, but she was a domestic violence victim! Of a terrible assault! He’s hypocritical demon spawn!-that we’re all going to lose the ability to see, let alone say, that there are legitimate reasons why domestic-violence victims might want to avoid the criminal system.

Even if Paterson knew the full story of what Ms. Booker says happened last Halloween (and he claims he did not) , he’d also have known that, even while the newspapers are trumpeting “the seriousness of the assault,” the actual crime involved isn’t that serious. That’s not my subjective take on it, it’s the law’s. If Johnson ripped off a Halloween costume he objected to, choked Ms. Booker and shoved her into a dresser, he could be charged with attempted assault, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail but rarely-in New York’s crowded prison system-sentenced to anything even close to that much time. (If “choking” and “smashing” sound like assault to you, you’re right-but only because you’re using a Webster’s dictionary instead of referring to the New York Penal Code, which requires that there be substantial physical injury in order to actually charge assault.) Even Hiram Monserrate didn’t get prison time.

Under ordinary circumstances-minus the press and the accompanying brouhaha-Ms. Booker’s journey through the criminal courts (which see about 350,000 cases a year city-wide) would likely have been long, unpleasant, and ultimately unsatisfactory. If she wanted a court order directing that Johnson stay away from her, then her appearance in family court was probably a good choice. If she just wanted Johnson to actually stay away from her, then the governor’s help was probably as good as anything she’d get elsewhere. And if she wanted to work things out with Johnson, then the state police’s risible-sounding suggestion of ” options, including counseling ” wasn’t a bad idea.

When I ran that by one of my former colleagues at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, she fairly howled in outrage. But he committed a crime! He should be punished! And she’s right-from the state’s point of view. But not always from the victim’s. Again, look at Hiram Monserrate, who was sentenced to three years of probation, a $1,000 fine, and a year of domestic-violence counseling-which is probably only available because he can pay for it. Would a result like that be worth the inconvenience and loss of privacy involved, or would Ms. Booker rather just move on with her life? It’s not a reprehensible question, it’s a practical one. Of course, it’s not a question that can be asked by the governor without Sopranos -like implications, and Paterson was a fool not to see that. But until we’re convinced that domestic-violence prosecution perfectly serves every victim’s needs, it’s a question that ought to be asked.