Vernetta Cockerham and her mother
Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
But she didn't see her daughter anywhere. The front door was closed now, and as Cockerham struggled with the dead bolt, she caught sight of her fingers—cut so badly, bone showed through the flesh. The lock gave and Cockerham ran, stumbling in the morning chill, across the street and through the vacant lot facing her house to the police station. There she collapsed in the doorway, her throat slashed and bleeding heavily. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she pleaded for someone to help her daughter. Chief Robbie Coe held a towel to her neck, trying to stanch the bleeding. "I know who did it, but you need to tell me who did it," he told her. But Cockerham had only one thing on her mind: Where are my kids?

Coe sent two officers, Scotty Vestal and Tim Lee Gwyn, to the house, where they waited for backup. Another officer found Candice's body in the downstairs bedroom. Heavy duct tape covered her mouth and nose. She'd been beaten and suffocated; an electrical cord was tied around her neck and reinforced with a layer of tape. Her hands and feet had been bound. And her jeans were pulled down around her knees, leaving her half naked.

The police had not arrested Cockerham's husband, Richard Ellerbee. And despite everything she'd done to protect herself and her family from a crime like this, the unbearable tragedy had happened anyway. "It was absolute torture what he did," she says.

Like every state, North Carolina has stringent laws to protect women and their children from domestic violence. The process often begins with a woman filing for an emergency protective order, which can be obtained without a lawyer from a local court (it requires filling out paperwork and is usually issued by a judge on the strength of the complaint). Protective orders (also called restraining orders) vary from state to state but typically forbid an abusive partner to come within a certain distance of the victim and may make other restrictions, like prohibiting phone calls or e-mail. In North Carolina, the emergency order remains in effect until a hearing takes place (usually within ten days), at which time both sides are allowed to present evidence. The judge then decides whether to grant a final order, which lasts up to a year.

If police find probable cause that an order has been violated—even something as simple as driving past the victim's house—most states have laws that call for an arrest. However, a study published in 2000 in Criminal Justice and Behavior, based on Massachusetts records and studies in other states, suggests that as many as 60 to 80 percent of restraining orders are not enforced. Furthermore, a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice study found that officers made arrests in only 47 percent of cases in which the victim reported being raped—even fewer when the complaint was assault (36 percent) or stalking (29 percent). In California a 2005 report by the state attorney general's office found widespread hesitation among police and prosecutors to enforce restraining orders—with dangerous consequences. "For the victim," the report concluded, "there is a loss of faith in the system and reluctance to report new violations, even as these violations grow in seriousness. For the batterer, there is a sense of empowerment to commit new violations and more violent crimes." When the rules call for mandatory arrest, says Kristian Miccio, an associate professor of criminal law and procedure at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, "and they don't enforce it, you have the illusion of protection, which is worse than not having it at all."


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