The Case That Taught Me Domestic Violence Isn’t What I Thought
It was just after two on a chilly afternoon in February, and I was about to hit play on my digital recorder when I heard Anthony Hinson swing through the courtroom door and announce his arrival with his characteristic self-pity. I turned. He was wearing his work boots, soiled with dry mud, along with a ratty sweatshirt and jeans streaked white with paint. Wide-eyed, acting the part of a stricken, clueless husband, he stammered, “I didn’t know this was happening today … I had no idea … I don’t know what to do.” Still pleading, he shuffled to the front while Willa, his wife and my client, stood motionless next to me.
“I thought things were going great between me and my wife,” he lied. “I don’t want a divorce.”
The presiding judge of the family court was a woman with a shiny swoop of hair sprayed into a slick bob. That morning, she had reviewed scores of photos of Willa Hinson. The photos had been taken over the full course of their 21-year marriage, but the bruising was so deep and the swelling so severe that Willa appeared ageless in them, a target of rage immune to time. In one photo, the frame was filled singularly by her left eye, violet, a lump that looked like it could be popped. Her lid was the seam of a rotten peach.
“After what I saw this morning,” Judge S. snapped at Anthony Hinson, “I can certainly understand why she wants one,” meaning a divorce.
“I need a continuance,” he asked. He’d learned the legal term for “delay” over the year that my colleagues and I had been litigating his separation from Willa and had, to be sure, mastered the art of it.
When I met her, Willa had been married to Anthony for 20 years, since they were 18. They had two children, now 11 and 17. The stories of the abuse, when she first told them to me, came out easily, as if she’d recalled them a million times, or lived them a million times: he had pushed her out of a moving car once, years earlier, then backed up to so he could throw her purse out the door, too. It landed in a puddle, was soggy for days. He once took off his boot and broke her nose with it at a party in front of their guests. Then he took off his other boot and did it again. He’d escaped from federal prison twice. His brother had served time, too, after together, they threw a Molotov cocktail at a guy who had made them mad. At a gas station.
On paper, Anthony made nothing, but his cash construction business brought in approximately $125,000 a year. There was a five-figure IRS lien on the home they’d built, a consequence of all of the years he hadn’t bothered to file taxes.
“Construction matches his personality,” Willa said. I asked what she meant. “Cut throat,” she said.
But many days, she couldn’t afford to put gas in her car. Anthony hoarded the cash he made and didn’t allow her to work. Sometimes, to afford groceries, she disobeyed him by helping a 91-year-old retired artist across town run errands, but the frequency with which Anthony slashed her tires prevented the gig from becoming a regular job. She had no way to get to work. The slashing was consistently followed by sickening, stereotypical gestures of remorse that only served to conceal just how broke she — they, due to his spending — were. She harbored ConEd shut-off notices inside her Coach purse. Her maxed out MasterCards and Visas (by him) had destroyed her credit, but she wore Chanel No. 5.
The morning she came into our offices, she reached a hand painted with chipped hot pink nail polish into a designer clutch and pulled out the photos we would offer into evidence a year later. As I flipped through them, holding my breath, she told me she wanted to serve him with divorce papers but continue living with him until the split was final. It took me a moment to understand: she wanted to serve him divorce papers but keep living together.
“I’ll stay at my sister’s for the night until he calms down then go back,” she said.
Because I didn’t want her to die as a result of behavior I regarded as reckless and terrifying, and because I didn’t want to facilitate further abuse, I asked if she would meet with a domestic violence counselor first. She agreed. I took down the rest of her information. Her email address contained the phrase “happydaysahead.”
“Is there anything else you want to talk about?” I asked.
“I want him to pay to fix my face.” She touched her cheek delicately, as one might test a fresh wound, or handle a mug fresh out of the microwave. “From all the hitting,” she clarified, “I look terrible.”
But her face was bright that day. She didn’t even have a zit. She looked like nothing had ever happened to her, at all.
Willa and Sheila, the counselor, met two or three times and made a “safety plan,” which is the domestic violence version of vacation planning, practical but somewhat macabre — collecting birth certificates, social security cards, and passports for her and her children; writing down important phone numbers; hiding weapons; and finding a temporary sitter for the pets.
On a Friday afternoon in March, Anthony was served with a divorce complaint by a designated court marshal while across town, Willa sat in her sister’s living room. Her boys were at school.
That weekend, I watched my cell phone like a soldier would her gun, and on Monday, I finally got a call. She’d returned home. As for the divorce complaint, he hadn’t said anything about it, but as usual, he had made his feelings clear in a different way.
“It’s in two on the kitchen table,” she said. I didn’t get what she meant at first.
“Torn,” she clarified. “In half.”
Most states don’t require “grounds” to get divorced anymore. You just have to show that your marriage is done, what people often refer to as “no-fault divorce.” Still, in many states there’s a waiting period during which, if you need to, you can seek temporary orders: child support, alimony, custody, and, accordingly, visitation. In certain instances — like domestic violence cases — litigants can also ask the court for exclusive use of the family’s home.
As we entered our state’s 90-day waiting period, my first task was to file for temporary orders for alimony and child support, along with exclusive use of her house so that Willa and the kids could stay there pending her final parting from Anthony, without him. Eventually, out from under his rule, she hoped to find a job that paid well enough to grant her financial independence, but she had never had one before and hadn’t gone to college, so the prospect of a job search was daunting for her.
Getting the temporary orders, however, proved difficult. Anthony was impressively adept at circumventing court summons. He would pretend he had misunderstood a notice or confused dates, or he would claim he couldn’t afford a lawyer. The cash nature of his business made it hard to establish these as the lies that they were. He wore dirty, threadbare clothes to court when he did show up, and railed about all of the money he wasn’t making in order to be in court. When he did finally obtain a lawyer, she fired him as a client (pretty rare in the legal profession) because he wouldn’t pay her and was verbally abusive. The court gave him more time to find another one, which he stretched into a handful of months.
Meanwhile, there were other, more pressing complications. For one, he was not only still living in their home with her, he was still abusing her, viciously and regularly. The neighbors called the police at one point to report that he was chasing her around their large, country yard in his pickup. A protective order was put in place, prohibiting him from coming near her or their home, but as with identical orders that had existed over the years, it mattered little.
The cycle was: it would get bad; Willa would call the police; a new protective order would be issued; he would violate it; she wouldn’t report him because she didn’t know how she would pay the bills if he did get arrested and locked up. So while the local police department never seemed surprised to receive a call from her, or me, or her neighbor, nothing much ever came of those calls. It wasn’t that no one cared. It was that after 20 years of living with the horrific, the horrific had become normal, and not only for her. Everyone involved seemed to have settled in. This is just how the Hinsons are.
One afternoon, when Willa and I were discussing her case over the phone, I noticed she was behaving strangely.
“Is Anthony there?” I asked. A moment of silence passed before I heard him calmly say into the phone, “Hi, Mary.” We had been on the call at least twenty minutes.
Willa seemed to believe that all of this would change once the divorce was final, which for her enabled a level of comfort with the status quo that I found eerie but impossible to penetrate. Her refrain was: “Once we’re divorced…” Once they were divorced, she would get a real job. Once they were divorced, she could make things right with her older son, who’d become angry at her for wanting to leave his father. Once they were divorced, she could light a candle and it would burn.
“Because he won’t be there to smash it apart,” she said. (This one, of course, broke my heart.)
But there was another refrain, too, one I viewed as tragic in a different, almost opposite way, because it was devastatingly rational: “If he goes to jail, how will I pay the bills?”
I didn’t know. My colleagues didn’t know. She didn’t know. Her counselor didn’t know. It was a dilemma, and the best I could come up with, apart from pushing her to find a job and searching for jobs for her myself, both of which I did, of course, was basically to say: wasn’t it better to be poor than beaten? Was poverty not clearly preferable to violence and terror? I suggested as much in as many ways as I could, but none of them resonated enough with Willa for her to complete a police report after an incident.
One afternoon, she arrived for a meeting and told us that the night before, Anthony had told her he was going to rip her heart out of her chest.
“He said he was going to hold it while it beat its last beat,” she said matter-of-factly, “and love doing it.” For a moment we just sat there, letting that phrase hang over the percolating hum of the room’s boisterous radiator. Then, one of us started giggling, I don’t remember who, but right away, we both were belly laughing.
“It’s just so horrible,” I said through tears.
Gradually, I found myself retreating into something like numbness. I never became like the local police, conditioned into cool acceptance that translated as indifference, but in my own way, I did. When she came in with a fresh bruise or a recording of a vulgar, assaultive phone message, I would cringe, but then I moved ahead through the agenda I’d prepared, relegating what once would have shocked me to a line of text in her case file, papering over the horror.
And the horror came, and it came.
But nothing compared to the tapes. Willa had taken to saving Anthony’s voicemails, which came in batches when she wouldn’t answer her cell phone. He’d react by calling 70, 75 times in a row, leaving streams of curses and threats until her mailbox was full. She would also record him when he lapsed into rampages, in person. He knew it was happening, because he’d see her press the button. (I confirmed this because on several recordings, he made comments like, “Fine, tape record me,” or, “I love it when you tape record me.”) One of these conversations was particularly harrowing. A dog barked intermittently in the distance, and the recorder beeped every 15 seconds, letting him know that it was capturing his words, as he promised, in various, impassioned ways, to kill her. It ended with him swearing, so close to the device so that his consonants were unsettlingly clear, “You’re dead.”
I knew if a judge could ever hear that tape, he or she would do whatever it took to protect her. We just had to make it to trial.
After I heard that tape, “once they were divorced” became a point in the future toward which I was dumping all of my hope and trust, too.
The day of the trial, we didn’t know if Anthony would show up, or, if he did, whether he would bring a lawyer, in which case, there would likely be another delay as a courtesy to the new attorney, to give him or her time to catch up on the case. We were to appear at 9:30.
At 10, Anthony still hadn’t shown.
“He just left this morning for work like normal,” Willa said, even though she’d reminded him that they were getting divorced that day.
I sat in the courtroom surrounded by crying babies and slumped, weary adults who, one by one, approached the front of the room, received instructions, and left — short hearings on procedural matters, check-ins mostly — thinking of how much I loathed Anthony, using it to buoy my adrenaline.
Just before 11, Judge S. called Willa’s last name from the bench. When she learned that Anthony was absent, she flipped through the record, reviewing how many times he had been awarded extra time to find lawyers, how the attorney he had found had dumped him due to “irrevocable breakdown of the client-attorney relationship,” and how his receiving notice of the latest summons had been irrefutably documented.
“I’m making a finding of fact that Mr. Hinson has received notice of this trial and proceeding in his absence,” she said.
Willa took the stand. We decided to start with the abuse, figuring that once the judge understood the extent of the violence, she would prioritize the case. It was the right move. Willa’s testimony, coupled with 25 exhibits — the horrific photographs from over 14 different instances spanning their marriage — was chilling as always, but with a new gloss of importance, because this time, the law was paying rapt attention. She told stories with the same disquieting detail she used in our meetings, noting crushing specifics like, “When he threw me across the room, I lost an earring then found it under the couch months later,” and, “When I woke up the next morning, I was just glad to have one black eye, not two.”
Finally, it was time to play the tape. I had submitted into evidence 10 transcripts of conversations and voicemails and asked the judge if she would listen to an excerpt from one—the one that ended in “you’re dead.” There were 88 seconds that, in my view, contained all that remained, the finale of the case, the summary of everything horrific and in need of intervention and repair. In 88 seconds, the trial would be over.
But Judge S. had a different plan in mind.
“Let’s go to lunch, actually,” she said. “We’ll start with the tape afterward, at two.”
And so we did. And then we returned. And at approximately 2:05, I was about to hit play when Anthony Hinson walked in.
I myself was terrified by Anthony Hinson. I’d begun having dreams in which he showed up at my apartment and threatened me, or started doing things to intimidate me, like following me home. From talking to people in the Hinsons’ lives—neighbors, relatives—I knew he’d threatened others in this way, that it was in part how he’d maintained power over Willa for so long. He scared people. And they were right to be scared, because he was dangerous.
“Your honor,” I interrupted, my voice trembling. “For over a year, the defendant has done everything in his power to stop this divorce from happening. He has made clear to his wife and to us that he disregards court orders and court proceedings, and he intentionally abuses the judicial system in order to abuse her further. He doesn’t want a divorce, but she is entitled to one.” (It may not have been that eloquent.)
Judge S. squinted at him as she considered our respective requests. Finally, she said, “We’re going to proceed. Mr. Hinson, Ms. Adkins was about to play a tape. Ms. Adkins, do you have a copy of the transcript for Mr. Hinson?”
I handed him a stack of transcripts of all of the tapes we’d submitted into evidence. On top was the one we were about to play. Judge S. asked if he had any objections to it. He read it quietly while we waited.
“I admit that I said these things,” he said, “but I was very upset.”
“Do you object?” she asked again.
“No,” he said like a child who’d been scolded and knew there was no escaping punishment.
I pressed play.
Mr. Hinson: Go to Salvation Army and get hand-me-downs, because I’m going to piss all over your fucking clothes, then I’m going to soak them in diesel fuel. Fuck you. Are you enjoying letting everybody listen to your conversation? Do you think you’re a big shot?
Ms. Hinson: No, I’m just doing it so I could play it to the police when I go there now.
Mr. Hinson: Well go down there now and tell them this. Tell them this. (Mr. Hinson’s voice moves closer to the recording device, as if he’s picked it up and is speaking into it.) Are you there? Are you still there? Yeah, it’s beeping. Tell them I’m going to break your fucking jaw, you fucking cunt, and if they come over to my house, they better bring more than one, because we’ve got a big fucking problem now. You’re dead. If I got anything to do with it, you’re dead. Fuck and you and your cunt fucking crack head friend, because I’m going to turn her in to the state, take her new baby away, little rodent. She probably doesn’t even know who the father is. (Pause.) So how do you like that, bitch bag?
And with that I figured the trial was over. The case was done. But I was wrong.
In all cases, including domestic violence cases, where there is a party unrepresented by an attorney and thus representing himself (called pro se in legalese), that pro se party has a right to examine and cross-examination witnesses, as the attorney would ordinarily do. Ever since learning of this phenomenon in the context of domestic violence, I had been appalled by the idea of an abuser cross-examining his victim, which struck me as simply cruel, a means of extending the abuse into the courtroom and sanctioning it by law.
Willa took the stand to answer Anthony’s questions.
“I want to talk about this picture with the two black eyes,” he began, having plucked the image from the stack of evidence we’d handed him for reference, admitted earlier that morning in his absence.
“As opposed to the one with the one black eye?” Judge S. sneered.
“Yeah,” he said, oblivious.
“How did this happen?” he asked Willa. For the second time that day (though he didn’t know that, of course), she told the story: during a party at their home, he had taken off and thrown each of his work boots into her face, from two feet away, while party guests looked on.
“So you’re saying,” he asked confidently, “that my hand never hit your face?”
“No,” Willa answered, “I’m not saying that. You hit me with your boots first, then you also hit me with your hand. You punched me. That’s probably the one that broke my nose.”
He appeared to have forgotten that part. He changed tactics.
“Have I not been good to you during our marriage?” he asked, sadly.
Focusing her gaze on him, Willa spoke as if they were in a private conversation.
“I keep telling you, and I don’t know how you can’t understand, that treating someone well isn’t just about money. You have to be kind. You’ve made me feel so small. You’ve made me feel like I am privileged just to be in your presence. You’ve made me believe that nothing you ever gave me or that we got together was mine, but that it was yours.”
She began to cry.
Unmoved, he asked his final question.
“Don’t you think it’s unfair to ask for alimony, child support, and the house?”
Still crying, Willa said loudly now, angrily, “You have made my life hell for 20 years. You’ve done it in front of our children, and who knows what that’s done to them. The bruises, the girlfriends — you stayed away for nights and nights when I didn’t know where you were. Henry would climb into bed with me and ask when you were coming home, and I didn’t know what to tell him. Everything I ever liked, you broke. If I liked it, you broke it. This is the first conversation we have had in years where you’re not cursing at me in every sentence.”
The last thing she said was, “All I want is to be happy.”
Anthony Hinson said nothing.
“Anything else, Mr. Hinson?” asked Judge S. He shook his head.
At five, the judge adjourned us for the day. We would have to resume the trial at 9:30 the next morning — it would be Anthony’s turn to call witnesses. But first, Judge S. issued an oral, unsolicited restraining order from the bench. She ordered Anthony not to come near Willa or their home during the night. He was to sleep elsewhere.
As Willa and I walked to the parking lot escorted by a large man with a pistol, also ordered by the judge, I asked her how it felt to be cross-examined by Anthony.
“Empowering,” she said.
That evening, Anthony came over to see Willa in flagrant violation of the judge’s order. She told this to my colleagues and me the next morning before court, and we all clasped our paper cups of coffee. Did we tell the court? The dilemma was the same one we’d been through before, and before, and before. We wanted to report Anthony, but Willa didn’t want him locked up, because how would she pay her bills?
Over the year I’d been representing her, my understanding of this dilemma had evolved. The evolution began when a new possibility had entered my mind, one that I didn’t like to think about for long, because of its implications. It was this: never having experienced the severity of violence that she had, myself, I saw it as the worst thing imaginable. But to her, someone who had lived with it for decades, it wasn’t imaginary. It was real. If, for Willa, being able to pay bills and buy food for her kids without moving into a shelter (which would have its own unknown challenges) mattered more than not getting hit, was she wrong? What made me more right?
This question simmered in my mind for months, and by the trial, it was clear to me that it was impossibly unfair to look at a mother of two who had never worked and tell her that she should send her husband to jail if it would leave her with no way to survive and care for her children. While it was clear progress that the judicial system now took domestic violence seriously enough that the possibility of Anthony’s incarceration was not only real but increasingly guaranteed, it was also patronizing in a different way, a way that had dire, practical implications: how do we deal with domestic violence victims when they are financially dependent on their abusers?
Our efforts at seeking “weekend jail” — by which Anthony might have only been incarcerated Saturdays and Sundays in order to maintain his work Monday through Friday — had failed for various reasons. A shelter wasn’t off the table, but it also wasn’t really a viable option for Willa. Her 17-year-old son was not welcome at most if not all of the local shelters. Perhaps more importantly, she did not want to take her school-age children and live in a shelter; she wanted to stay in her own home. I got it. I wouldn’t either.
My colleagues and I had begun throwing around an idea, a sort of crazy idea, but something that seemed like it could be the solution to this mess of dependency and violence. What if we could convince the judge to order a different kind of protective order, one with terms stating that every time Anthony violated it, he would have to pay Willa $1,000?
If he punched her again, he would be fined. If he left her alone, however, he would get to keep his most precious possession — his cash.
The idea of using Anthony’s own tool — financial dependence — against him thrilled me. It was potentially the critical formula to untangle Willa’s heartbreaking quandary. If Willa wouldn’t use the state’s singular tool, incarceration, to protect herself from her husband, there was another tool we could ask the state to hand her that she would use. And the best shield is one that a person is willing to pick up. Right?
Willa testified that the night before, Anthony had come over. As Judge S. turned to him with fury in her eyes, I said, having rehearsed the request several times, “Your honor, Mrs. Hinson has very thoughtfully chosen civil court to bring up her husband’s violations. Unlike in criminal proceedings, she’s a party here, so she can ask for what she believes she needs most. She’s afraid of his being incarcerated because she and her kids are completely dependent on him, financially. So we would like to ask that every time he violates the protective order, he be required to pay her $1,000.”
For the first time during the trial, she glared at me with the same disgust that, up until that point, she’d reserved for Anthony.
“Well, I am concerned for her physical safety,” she said.
I am too! I wanted yell, But the threat of jail isn’t protecting that, either! We have to give her something else to work with!
Openly frustrated, she asked the courtroom, rhetorically, “Do you know how many times in my tenure as judge I have issued a restraining order from the bench without an application for one?” She held up one finger. “One. Yesterday. I read through all those transcripts you gave me last night, and I am seriously considering whether I should hand them over to the state for criminal prosecution.”
No one said anything. After a few moments, she began to collect her papers.
“I need to take a recess to think about this,” she muttered and exited through the backdoor to her chambers as we all stood for her departure, then sat back down.
Moments later, several armed marshals entered and stood behind Anthony. We didn’t know what it meant, but clear to everyone was that it was a sign that Anthony would not be leaving the courthouse freely. He handed his brother his keys and his cell phone, and we heard his brother say, “They’ll take care of it.”
Willa began to cry. This was the last thing she wanted to happen. She was staring at him across the room with an expression I couldn’t place, but it wasn’t hostile. Maybe she was pitying him, or grieving for him, or for both of them and their kids.
Ten minutes or so passed before Judge S. returned.
“If you want to file a separate motion for violation of the restraining order, you may,” she said, looking at us, sidestepping our creative remedy request by requiring us to formally ask for it via paper. But Willa didn’t want to file a separate motion. After the arrival of the armed guards and Judge S.’s criminal prosecution threat, she was too afraid. Our creative solution never got a chance to be considered.
My colleague delivered the closing argument — a chronological overview of Willa’s torturous marriage, which had spanned half of her life. Midway through it, Willa began to cry again. When it was Anthony’s turn to make a closing statement, he said, “I’m sorry. I never intended to hurt her all those times. It wasn’t my intention.” He sounded sincere. And as I watched him, I felt something like pity, myself. He was an asshole, but it was also just all so sad. He was sick. They were locked in a dynamic that had maxed out his self-awareness and his ability to constrain his rage, and she was the target of his lashing out. This is what we, a society combatting domestic violence, were up against: a damaged, helpless mind at a loss, ravaging its way through the world.
The judge closed trial by declaring that because she had to write an opinion and had up to four months to do so, she would grant our requests for temporary orders pending judgment. She then awarded Willa every single thing we’d asked for: exclusive use of their home with full custody of their kids. Anthony was to pay her $1,200 a week in combined alimony and child support, and, in addition, to continue covering their mortgage payments, car payments, and insurance premiums. He was fuming, fiddling, and pacing as she read our requested orders verbatim, granting them one by one without modification. Willa appeared wholly relieved, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of the financial orders, or because Anthony hadn’t been arrested. Then, Judge S. focused on Anthony.
“Mr. Hinson, judges do not make orders to hear themselves talk. When a court makes orders, they are to be followed. Failure to follow them can result in arrest.”
“What if I don’t pay the $1,200?” he boldly asked.
“Failure to pay can result in arrest and incarceration,” she repeated.
“How do I change this order?” he barked, the full tenor of his wrath apparent for the first time since the trial began.
“You can hire a lawyer, or there’s a law library upstairs. You can do some research. I’m not allowed to give you legal advice.” Then she turned to the room at large and said, “This has been a hard trial. Thank you all.”
After we left, over a celebratory round of drinks, I gave Willa a wooden angel I’d seen in a window at the local mall. It represented courage and had made me think of her.
The next morning, Willa and I would find someone to change the locks on her doors. There was a local organization that did it for free for domestic violence victims, but they had closed for the day.
Just after 7 p.m., my cell phone buzzed. It was Willa. She had just arrived home with her youngest son Henry — they had first gone to her sister’s for an early dinner, following the trial — and there was no furniture in the house. Even the washer and dryer had been removed. The hand off of the keys from Anthony to his brother now made sense.
Through a series of motions and hearings fraught by familiar snags, Anthony eventually returned the furniture, but over the next few months, we would return to court again and again when he failed to pay. Once, he showed up at the house and broke the angel I’d given her. This is how things went after I had made a career change and was no longer representing her. I’d call or text to check in once in a while. At one point, I learned that Anthony had shown up and, in an incident involving hot oil on the stove, burned Willa’s friend, a man, severely. Anthony did, finally, end up in jail for that.
I don’t know where either of the Hinsons is living now, whether they are together or apart. Part of me wants to know, but a larger part of me doesn’t, because of what I fear: that little about their lives or their relationship has changed, that it is as it always was. The legal system tried to protect her, but in the way it defined protection, which was not in a way that she could accept it. In the tragic gap between the two, she was left to forge her own way to happier days.
If they are back together, or if they aren’t but he continues to abuse her, sometimes I wonder — what did it all mean? I find myself thinking back to what she said to him from the stand, how she spoke. I remember her word, “empowering.” We gave her that moment, I think, and the thought instills a glimmer of satisfaction, a sense that maybe it wasn’t all for naught. And we gave her the symbol she craved. She got her divorce.
But just like symbols don’t pay the bills, and incarceration didn’t make Anthony less violent, moments of triumph don’t make up for years of pain, or the trauma seared into the minds and memories of the Hinson children. In my uncertainty, my lack of a bow to tie into an ending, I am left with one belief of which I am certain. Domestic violence, its contours and complexities, its subtle shading and stark white places that become shadowed at various angles, remains mishandled by the law as it stands today. Somewhere, there is a woman who looks into the mirror and sees a mangled face where there are only sad, lovely eyes. She is why.