A former Amherst woman whose horrifying story of spousal abuse garnered national attention on the Oprah Winfrey Show returned Wednesday to Erie County to support a specialized domestic violence court that has been criticized by District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.
“This court is a very important thing to me because of my personal experience,” said Susan Still, whose ex-husband’s trial in 2004 was the first held in the Integrated Domestic Violence Court.
Ulner Lee Still was sentenced to 36 years in state prison for felony assaults and misdemeanors against his wife. One of the beatings was captured on videotape.
“It would be a travesty for this court to be eliminated,” Still told The Buffalo News.
State Supreme Court Justice Paula L. Feroleto, administrative judge of the state’s Eighth Judicial District of Western New York, has said the court system intends to keep the integrated court intact.
Sedita has stopped prosecuting misdemeanors and violations in the court, but he continues to prosecute felony domestic violence cases in the specialized court as well as in other courts.
Sedita prefers that his prosecutors handle violation and misdemeanor-level domestic violence cases in local courts. Too many cases in the integrated court are dismissed or end in acquittal because they never belonged in the court in the first place, and his prosecutors’ time could be better used elsewhere, Sedita has said.
Sedita said he would like to add a prosecutor to his Sex Crimes Bureau but has not been able to do so because two prosecutors are tied up in the domestic violence court.
The specialized court was formed so that domestic violence victims would not have to appear before different judges in multiple courts to deal with separate criminal, family and matrimonial cases. The court enables one judge to hear all of the cases. Only those with cases pending in criminal and family or civil courts are referred to the court.
Supporters say the court allows the judge to become better informed about all of the cases in which the victim and defendant are involved and creates consistency in orders of protection.
“In IDV court, one judge knows the whole story with the family,” Still said.
Still, who no longer lives in the area, speaks at training sessions and conferences across the country before lawyers, police officers, judges, prosecutors and victim advocates about the impact of domestic violence.
She said she returned to Erie County on her own when she heard about the controversy involving the court.
“I have only heard of success rates in areas with integrated domestic violence courts. It’s always positive feedback. This is the first negative feedback I heard. I was shocked,” she said.
She urged prosecutors and court personnel to look at what steps can be taken to improve the court. “It’s working everywhere else,” she said. “If it’s not working in Erie County, let’s find out why it’s not working.”
Specialized training for judges and other court personnel in the integrated court benefits the victims, improving how they are treated. The court can better monitor offenders’ participation in programs, which local courts cannot duplicate, Still said. She said it’s important for prosecutors to handle misdemeanor cases in the integrated court. “Today it’s a misdemeanor, and tonight it’s a homicide,” she said, calling the court a homicide-prevention effort.
Sedita said he tried for two years to resolve his complaints with court officials over the integrated court. He has sought money from the court system to help pay for the prosecutors, or more control over which cases are brought into the court, or scheduling flexibility for prosecutors assigned to the court.
But he has said the court system has rejected his proposals, and all the while his office pays for prosecutors to be in the court.
“Every solution I proposed has been summarily rejected,” Sedita said. “I’ve been trying for two years. Do you think for a second I would do something as controversial as this if I had somewhere else to go?
“I’m not trying to create controversy. I don’t want people to think I don’t care about domestic violence.”
Still’s case, which involved a felony, was brought to superior court after a prosecutor had reviewed the case and a grand jury returned an indictment. It was not sent to the integrated court by an administrative transfer, the process that Sedita has complained about.