Magistrate’s denial of protection orders alarms domestic violence victims, advocates

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DENVER -- Almost half of all murders in Colorado are women killed by their husbands.

Many of these women suffer in violent intimate relationships for years, and sometimes they turn to family and friends for help. More often, they turn to court where they file for protection orders.

Every day, at 9:00 a.m. in Denver’s City and County Building people anxiously wait.  Each has a different story of abuse, and each shares a desperate need for protection.

“His exact words were I'm going to chop her up.”

In April Cynthia Gomez waited in that very hallway outside courtroom 170, a special court room reserved for domestic violence cases and protection order hearings.

“I told (the magistrate) I was threatened and that I had received a message on the 5th of April that he was going to chop me up. His exact words were, ‘I'm going to chop her up,” said Gomez.

Gomez begged Magistrate Catherine Cary for a protection order after violent threats from her ex-boyfriend Ruben Angel Florez escalated. Instead she watched Magistrate Cary deny request after request for protection from other women who came for help.

“I watched about six of them and she granted only one,” Gomez said. Her case was next. “What I got from it was that he had to abuse me to near death for her to give me.”

We obtained the police report Gomez filed where a police officer backs-up Gomez`s story. In the report the officer writes that she ‘heard the voicemail left by the suspect.'  The officer even writes she hears the suspect say 'he was going to chop her up' in the voicemail.

Domestic violence victim advocates argue the officer’s observations should have been more than sufficient for Magistrate Cary to issue the protection order. But inside courtroom 170 , Magistrate Cary told Cynthia Gomez ‘no’.

“(The Magistrate) just seemed like she didn't want to give anybody one. If you weren't getting beaten or you didn't have any marks on you, you weren't going to get one,” Gomez said.

We requested several times to speak to Magistrate Cary, but she denied those too. Even when we confronted her in the hallway before court she declined to explain her performance.

Though Cary refused to talk to us, her record speaks for itself. Under Colorado's open records laws we reviewed four months of protection order hearings for magistrate Cary and the two prior years.

In each year, the magistrates heard a similar number of protection order requests, but when you review the percentage of those filings the magistrates denied, a dramatic difference appears.

Cary denied 36% of the cases in front of her. In the two years prior, the other magistrates denied 12% and 16%.

“They absolutely save lives.” Victim advocate Amanda Milner calls Cary's record alarming. “It's hard to be surprised after I've been in this field as long as I have, but that's a high number a high number.  There's only limited number of tools that victims of domestic violence have, and this is such an important one and so it's disheartening to hear.”

Here’s something else we uncovered. For the city attorney to accept a criminal case for filing they must believe they can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest burden of law in the country.

Denver’s city attorney accepted Cynthia Gomez’s case for criminal charges believing they had enough evidence to meet that burden.  Magistrate Cary’s burden is far less. She must have sufficient evidence to believe the victim is in danger. She needs essentially 51% (probable cause) to meet this standard.

Armed with the same facts as the city attorney, Magistrate Cary still denied Gomez the protection she desperately needed.

“Nine out of ten victim of domestic violence underestimate their risk of being killed so if you have a victim in front of you expressing those concerns, believe them,” said Milner.

Magistrate Catherine Cary continues to sit on the bench. Even with a record some call dangerous, she alone decides who deserves protection and who must go without it.

“I felt like (the system) failed me,” said Gomez.

Note: Magistrate Catherine Cary is hired by the Chief Judge. Unlike most judges, she is not appointed by the Governor or Mayor. When made aware of our story the Chief Judge declined to be interviewed to defend Magistrate Cary or her record.

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