It’s not often that a judge will deny the victim a request to lift an injunction against the man she said abused her. Nor do lawyers often–if at all–yell at their client and order them out of the courtroom. That’s usually the judge’s job. Both of those things happened this afternoon in Circuit Judge Terence Perkins’s courtroom at the Flagler County courthouse in a public example of a frequent phenomenon as victims realign with their alleged abuser, and find themselves at odds with the judicial system whose protection they’d recently sought.
This is the case of Joel Buzzard, 49, of Bunnell, and the woman who, the night of his arrest on Sept. 11, had been dating him just three months. That night the woman called 911, told the dispatcher that Buzzard had allegedly battered her and was not letting her leave the house on County Road 140. Her children, 10 and 8, were in the house. The four lived together as a family unit at the time.
When deputies made contact with the alleged victim, she told them that she and Buzzard had been bar-hopping much of the evening and that Buzzard was having fits of anger over a haunting memory. (Three of his children, who were 7, 6 and 3 at the time, were all killed in a mobile home fire in central Ohio in 2010. His teen son survived.) According to the woman, her daughter had complained of being hungry, setting Buzzard off. He yelled at them both. The woman decided to take her daughter and go out for something to eat when Buzzard, according to his arrest report, “with a closed first punched her in the face, causing a laceration to the bottom of her lip.” The woman told him he would not stop her from being a mother to her children, and that she would leave the house for good with both of them. Buzzard allegedly grabbed her “by the throat and pinned her up against the wall, preventing her from leaving after attempting to escape the residence.”
The woman broke free, gathered her children, took refuge in a bedroom and called 911. Deputies had to establish a “perimeter” around the [property when they arrived, not knowing where Buzzard was. They also had to call in Volusia County Air One, the emergency helicopter, to assist in the search, but Buzzard was found at the south end of the property and declined to provide a statement as he was booked at the county jail on three felony charges–battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and felony battery. The charges were all upgraded to felonies because of Buzzard’s prior history of domestic violence: he has four convictions for domestic battery. He was also at the center of a 2007 breaking and entering case that made it to the Ohio Supreme Court. (He lost.)
Buzzard was released on $12,500 bond, but with numerous conditions, including an electronic GPS on his ankle and a no-contact order involving the woman. A week later the State Attorney’s Office dropped two of the charges and filed the domestic battery by strangulation charge, a third-degree felony. Buzzard retained Palm Coast Attorney Josh Davis. The first pre-trial in the case is not until Wednesday.
In the meantime, Davis filed a motion to modify the no-contact order. Buzzard was seeking to have the GPS monitor–the maintenance and monthly costs of which he has to pay for–removed, and to be allowed to have contact with the woman, as long as it’s not violent.
That was the motion before Perkins this afternoon. It was one hearing among more than a dozen, though Perkins gave it its due like any other. Buzzard was in the courtroom. It’s not clear if the judge was aware. The woman was linked in by zoom. Davis asked her if she wanted the order changed. She said yes. He asked her if she was “scared of Mr. Buzzard.” She said no.
“And would you like to carry on your relationship with him and have this no contact order changed?” Davis asked. She said yes.
Then Assistant State Attorney Tara Libby, who was opposed to the motion, questioned the woman. She asked her if she’d had any contact with Buzzard. The woman said no. Libby asked her if Buzzard drinks frequently. “Not that I’m aware of, no,” the woman said, only socially. Libby asked her where the children were during the incident. The woman said they were “in another room,” without mentioning that, according to what she had told deputies, it had been the angry interaction between Buzzard and her daughter that had triggered the incident, or that she had to take refuge with them behind a locked door. Libby did not inquire further about that. But she asked: “If Mr. Buzzard were to become violent with you again, would you call law enforcement?”
“I don’t think that would happen again,” the woman said.
“My question is, if he were to be violent with you, would you call law enforcement?” the Assistant State Attorney asked.
“Honestly? No,” came the startling answer.
Libby had no further questions. The judge did. He told the woman he’d read the arrest report, and asked if it was true that Buzzard had struck her with a closed fist.
“To be honest with you, I don’t remember we were both under the influence,” she said. The judge asked her about being strangled to the point of not being able to hear. The woman gave the same answer: she did not recall.
Perkins said the no-contact order was designed to protect her, not Buzzard. “If that history is true, why is it that you’re asking for less protection now than you were the night of the incident?” he asked her.
“Because I really don’t remember what happened that night. We’ve never had an incident like that before,” she said, adding that she’d known him for just three months.
The judge then turned to the attorneys to make their arguments. Davis said the woman under oath had sworn she felt in no danger. But Libby was concerned that between the brevity of the relationship and the woman’s own acknowledgement that she would not all police, the only option was to deny the request.
Usually, I give great weight to the testimony and the preferences of a victim and that’s the case even in allegations of violence,” Perkins said. He said he’d partially grant the request–phone and electronic contact with the woman, but no lifting of the physical no-contact order, or of the GPS monitoring. That could change in the future, but he wanted “baby steps” for now. “And let’s bear in mind in this case, as in many cases, but in this case in particular,” the judge continued, “There’s more than just the two of them involved. There’s the children, there’s law enforcement that gets called in when they have a fight. So we’re protecting those folks also.”
It was at that point that Buzzard stood up from the rear of the courtroom as if to step forward. He began to say something without being allowed by the court. Davis immediately shut him down. “Walk outside,” he ordered him. Buzzard complied. Perkins asked if Davis wanted to explain Buzzard’s reaction, which clearly did not sit well with the judge or help Buzzard’s case.
Judge, I don’t know what he’s thinking right now, I apologize for the outburst,” Davis said. “That’s clearly not professional and not something that I have instructed him to do, nor I would allow in front of this court if it were mine.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” the judge told him.
In a written statement this evening, Davis said: “Joel had his freedom taken away because of these allegations. For almost two months since his release, he’s been required to wear a GPS monitor even though he’s presumed innocent according to the Constitution. There is only one alleged victim in this case. She appeared today and testified, under oath, that she wanted the no contact order changed, thus alleviating the need for the GPS monitor. Joel was understandably upset, as was I, with the Court’s ruling. However, it is incumbent upon all of us to accept a lawful ruling (this clearly was) and maintain decorum in a court of law.”
The unspoken outcome of today’s hearing was that for all its allegations of violence and the physical effects observed, the state’s case against Buzzard essentially fell apart, since its chief witness, its only witness, told the court under oath that she did not remember what happened, and gave every indication that she was no longer interested in prosecuting her boyfriend. The question is how long the case will continue to make its way through the court before the last of the three charges is dropped.