Guest commentary: Was Hecht’s domestic violence case any different?
March 2, 2016
Many in the community have closely followed the domestic-violence case against prominent Aspen resident Nikos Hecht.
Similar to Charlie Sheen's domestic-violence case in Pitkin County in 2010, this case has raised challenging questions about the nature of our criminal-justice system, including whether justice can ever be truly blind. Do some defendants, whether they have money, fame or both, receive different outcomes from the very agencies charged with holding them accountable?
That was certainly true in Sheen's case, in which accommodations were made so that he was released from jail over a holiday weekend instead of waiting until the next business day to see the judge. Also, his six-month probation was significantly shorter than other similarly sentenced individuals serving average yearlong probation times. Putting Sheen's case aside — as we hope it's not representative of how Pitkin County handles domestic-violence cases — should we be outraged at the resolution of Hecht's case, in which he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of harassment (strike, shove or kick) in exchange for the dismissal of assault and menacing charges?
The not-so-simple answer is yes and no.
Yes, because it would be hard to imagine almost any victim feeling a sense of justice or reparation for the physical and emotional trauma experienced in domestic abuse. And no, because in reality, the sentencing outcome of this case is consistent with most domestic-violence cases seen locally and throughout the state.
So, if you are dismayed about what seems to be a slap on the wrist for Hecht, please be equally dismayed for all of Pitkin County's other victims of domestic violence.
It is a reality in all criminal courts that as many as 97 percent of cases are resolved through plea bargaining, in which a reduction or dismissal of some charges is offered in exchange for a guilty plea. Our criminal-justice system simply couldn't work otherwise, and for many domestic-violence victims it is a blessing that they are not required to endure the long and combative nature of a trial. Yet, in a case where there is more concrete evidence than a victim's report after the fact (such as a voice recording during the incident that includes direct threats and references to the abuse, including strangulation) and there is a victim who is expressing a willingness to seek justice, these are the very cases that could and should be the 3 percent that are taken to trial. Don't believe for a minute that Hecht's high-powered defense attorney, the very one hired to represent Kobe Bryant on sexual-assault allegations 13 years ago, would have advised Hecht to accept such a plea offer from the district attorney if she hadn't been frightened by the evidence in the case and the very real possibility of a guilty verdict from a jury.
It is also a reality that most domestic-violence cases are charged as misdemeanors, as occurred in Hecht's case, not felonies. To meet the legal definition for a felony assault, a medical doctor needs to attest to "serious bodily injury," which means injury that involves the risk of death, disfigurement, loss of or damage to an organ or body part, a broken bone or a serious burn.
The reality for an abuser is that they will only use the level of abuse necessary to gain control over their partner. If yelling, threats, intimidation and other forms of verbal and emotional abuse are enough to influence their partner, then those are the tactics they will use. If that doesn't work, the abuse might ratchet up to include pushing, shoving and grabbing, which most often doesn't result in serious bodily injury. For an abuser, why risk being arrested, face social stigmatization, or have your partner leave because they clearly recognize that you have crossed their boundaries when the more subtle and less criminally consequential actions are just as, if not more, effective?
It might shock most readers to know that even nonfatal strangulation, as was alleged in the Hecht case, is most often charged as a misdemeanor. The good news is that there is proposed legislation in the Colorado Senate, House Bill 1080, that would make the act of nonfatal strangulation a felony-level charge that would hold offenders accountable commensurate to the crime they have committed.
So here is my plea to you if you find yourself troubled by the mere slap on the wrist for Hecht, incensed by Hecht's comments that it was "a silly situation" or angered that it appeared that the victim herself was the one put on trial over the past several months. Please use this as an opportunity to increase your understanding of why many victims never report the abuse or recant their reports. Please use this to increase not only your empathy but your willingness to lend tangible support to abuse victims directly or through a donation to Response. Please use this to contact Rep. Millie Hamner, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at 303-866-2952 or firstname.lastname@example.org to urge her to support the passage of House Bill 1080 so that strangulation can be charged as the felony it should be. Please use this to turn your outrage into action by becoming a Response advocate or supporter so that you can let abuse victims know that they deserve to be treated better.
Jill Gruenberg is the program director of Response: Help for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Please contact Response at 970-920-5357, or visit our website at responsehelps.org for more information. If you need assistance as a victim, please call our hotline at 970-925-7233.