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But after spending the weekend before the hearing out of town, she came home to find a large boot print in the fine dust that covered her porch chair—and another one on the railing of the upstairs balcony. Ellerbee had broken in through a window while she was gone. The lock on the file cabinet where she kept her valuables was broken and inside was a note on a torn piece of notebook paper. "I will kill you," it said in Ellerbee's block print. "You will die."

The November 12 hearing was postponed a day while Ellerbee was booked in Surry County on the assault charges and released on a $3,000 bond. The case was supposed to be heard by McLean, the original judge in the July assault case. But, perhaps because of an oversight, a new judge, Jeanie Houston, presided. (The court record is unclear; both McLean and Houston declined to comment.) The assistant district attorney prosecuting Ellerbee was new to the case, too.

Houston found that Ellerbee posed a threat to Cockerham and the children, sufficient evidence to extend the protective order for a year. But the judge did not find that he'd violated his probation, in spite of a recommendation from his probation officer that it be revoked. When Cockerham realized that Ellerbee wasn't going to jail, she became hysterical.

"He's going to take my life," she screamed at the court. "What else can I do?"

Two states away, in Louisville, Kentucky, Jerry J. Bowles, a circuit judge in Jefferson County, runs a very different court—an example of reform efforts being made in various places around the country to improve protection for domestic abuse victims. In Louisville, social workers help judges prepare for cases, and the same judges stay with a case—for years if needed—until it's resolved. Court officials, police, and social workers also meet to review domestic homicides to figure out how the system failed. And a local company developed the nation's first automated system to notify victims when an assailant is released from jail or prison. When it comes to protective orders, Bowles is a strong believer in enforcement—"not only mandatory arrest but sanctions," he says. "I have people serving six months in jail for not completing treatment." As a result, none of the cases that have come before him in the past 13 years has resulted in a murder.

One morning last January, he arrived early for court, wearing cowboy boots under his robes. He took his seat high up on the bench, behind a protective shield of heavy plastic. There were 32 domestic violence cases on the day's docket—mostly women seeking protection. One had been raped by her husband, another beaten, a third stabbed with a corkscrew. A nursing assistant in her 40s sat quietly at the plaintiff's table. The father of her two sons drinks too much, she explained to the judge; she wants out, but he threatens to kill her if she ever leaves. Recently they argued over money, and he pushed her against a chest of drawers.

"It never should have got as far as it did," the man told Bowles. "Yes, I did threaten her. But I'm not a real threat to her. I've got two kids by this lady. I'm not going to do something to hurt my kids."

Bowles issued the protective order. "There's only one reason we threaten people," he told the man sternly. "We want them to think we have the ability to hurt them if they don't do what we want."

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