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Famous violent incident drives discussion at MUSC

Helen Adams | MUSC News Center | October 31, 2014

Helen Adams

Attorney Cassandra Woosley (left) and Judge Ellen Steinberg debate whether domestic violence is a criminal problem or a social one. 

A Charleston judge and a criminal defense lawyer used a professional football player’s domestic violence case to illustrate their points in a discussion about whether domestic violence is a criminal problem or a social one.

Their talks were part of the Thomas A. Pitts Memorial Lectureship in Medical Ethics at the Medical University of South Carolina. This year’s lectureship focused on ethical and legal issues in domestic violence. It brought experts from around the country to Charleston to discuss the impact of domestic violence and how health care professionals can help victims in safe and empathetic ways.

South Carolina Magistrate Judge Ellen Steinberg said there is no question that domestic violence is a crime, and brought up the videotaped incident involving football player Ray Rice, showing a still photo of it. Rice was caught on camera in an Atlantic City hotel elevator knocking his then-fiancée (now wife) unconscious. “Do we have any question that what [Rice] did in the elevator is a crime?” Steinberg asked. People in the audience of mostly health care professionals shook their heads. 

“We know that it’s a crime to hit somebody regardless of the relationship,” Steinberg said.

She said society should never look for ways to excuse violent behavior.

Ray Rice CNN 
Janay and Ray Rice on CNN 

Assistant Public Defender Cassandra Woosley had a different interpretation of the Rice video during her talk, taking the position that domestic violence is a social problem instead of a criminal one.

Woosley played the video, describing it from a defense lawyer’s perspective. She pointed out that the video showed Rice’s fiancée taking a swing at him before he knocked her out. She also raised questions about the couple’s behavior before the incident that was caught on videotape.

Woosley’s position was that there are at least two sides to any story and domestic violence should not be in a separate category from other crimes involving assault and battery.

Their contrasting views demonstrated the complexity of the ethics involved in dealing with domestic violence, echoing the theme of the Pitts Lectureship.

The judge, who is a former prosecutor, and the defense lawyer agreed that abuse cases are complicated.

Steinberg told a story about a hypothetical 26-year-old paralegal named Amy to illustrate what can happen to a case that seems clear cut at first but becomes more challenging.

“We all know her. She’s bright,’ Steinberg said. “Saturday night, Amy goes to meet her friends at a bar, and they’re having a great time.  Suddenly a man appears in front of Amy, pulls his hand back and smacks her right in the jaw. She falls to the ground.”

Steinberg said police arrested the attacker, a man named Josh. Then she told the audience that Josh and Amy had just ended a relationship. While a prosecutor prepared the case against Josh, the couple reconciled and Amy told her lawyer she forgave Josh.

Steinberg asked the audience: “Is it still a crime?”

The crowd’s answer was yes.

Woosley, the public defender, provided examples of complex cases as well. She told the audience that women can be the abusers, police don’t always do a good job of investigating and people plead guilty just to get out of jail.

Both speakers referred to South Carolina law.

“South Carolina code of law 16-25-20 defines domestic violence,” Steinberg said. "It is unlawful to cause physical harm or injury to a person’s own household member."

Woosley called the statute “too vague,” taking issue with its wording.

They sat together on a panel after their individual speeches and fielded questions from the audience.

Other speakers at the two-day Pitts Lectureship focused on areas of controversy as well, working to give health care professionals the broad background they need to make decisions about the best way to handle suspected cases of domestic abuse.


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Resources >>

MUSC National Crime Victims Center

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MUSC College of Nursing Domestic Violence guidelines

MUSC News Center archives


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