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Disputed domestic violence cases in Manchester not black and white

By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader

July 16. 2017 12:29AM
Natasha Boisvert poses for a picture with her children Aislynn, 4, and Landynn, 2, and their father Nathan Dostie. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - As Manchester prosecutors begin work on dozens of reinstated domestic-violence cases, they will likely face many of the challenges - reluctant witnesses, weak cases, victim complications - that prompted an embattled prosecutor to drop the charges in the first place.

A New Hampshire Union Leader review of some of the cases found victims recanting, one within four days of his girlfriend's arrest. In other cases, prosecutors had to provide immunity to victims for the case to go forward. In still others, victims turned reluctant after realizing the implications of an arrest.

"She (the victim) does not want a no contact (bail) order, and wants to do marriage counseling," reads paperwork in one of the cases, which was dropped last September.

The examples illustrate the complications that crop up in many domestic violence cases, said Mark Osborne, a Nashua criminal defense attorney and former county prosecutor.

When that happens, one of the best strategies is for a prosecutor to drop charges in exchange for the promise from a defendant to attend counseling, he said. Such deals are imperative, Osborne said, in the overworked District Court system, where domestic violence misdemeanors vie with drug cases, petty thefts, vandalism, minor assaults and traffic violations on a crowded court docket.

"District Court, it's almost like the drive-through of justice," Osborne said.

Meanwhile, a victim rights group said other jurisdictions could be handling domestic violence prosecutions similar to Manchester, and there's no way of telling.

"The next piece of this is, what's happening in other cities?" said Amanda Grady Sexton, the public affairs director of New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Joshua's Law, which codified domestic assault as a crime, went into effect 2½ years ago, but no one has gathered data to determine how the law is enforced, she said.

"This absolutely highlights the need for a statewide review. This issue starts with police and ends with judges; it's not just on the prosecutors," Sexton said.

Last week, Emily Gray Rice assumed the job of city solicitor, after Attorney General Gordon MacDonald issued a wider-ranging critique of domestic-violence prosecutions in Manchester, prompting veteran City Solicitor Tom Clark and Deputy Solicitor Tom Arnold to quickly announce their retirements.

One of MacDonald's complaints was the repeated practice of dropping charges in exchange for actions such as counseling, therapy or assessment. Also, the domestic-violence prosecutor, Andrea Muller, did not follow through when a defendant didn't live up to his side of the bargain.

Rice's office has reinstated criminal charges in about 40 of those cases.

But a victim in one of the cited cases said she agreed to have the charges dropped and doesn't want to see her boyfriend, the father of her two children, face prosecution now.

"We want to be together and have a family and are working toward that. If the domestic stuff came up, it wouldn't help either of us," said Natasha Boisvert in an interview last week.

A year ago, police arrested Nathan Dostie, 29, and charged him with choking Boisvert, a felony, as well as slapping her.

Boisvert said she told Muller she didn't want the felony charge to go forward. And about a month after the arrest, she agreed that all charges would be dropped if Dostie stayed out of trouble and undertook a domestic-violence evaluation.

He hasn't submitted a letter proving he was evaluated, something Boisvert blames on a mix-up over what kind of counseling was required.

According to MacDonald's office, Dostie has a record that includes probation violations and drug use.

Boisvert attributed his problems to alcoholism, and said Dostie is on the right path.

"I really think he's changed," Boisvert said.

She said he works now and pays to support their children.

"I've known him for over eight years," she said. "I don't think I'm in denial."

Rice has said her office will take a victim-centered approach to reinstated domestic-violence cases.

MacDonald has demanded that Rice's office critically review the practice of conditional discharges by next Thursday. If they are to continue, Rice must develop standards and protocols.

Osborne paints a picture of a system that forces a prosecutor to rely on them.

Police make arrests on every domestic violence call, even when they know it won't go forward, Osborne said. And then the victims have second thoughts, he said.

"At the bottom of that funnel is Andrea Muller's desk," Osborne said. Osborne, whose op-ed column in support of Muller ran in the New Hampshire Union Leader last week, said he only knows her professionally and not socially.

Muller has repeatedly declined reporters' requests for comment.

Osborne said different prosecutors handle case dismissals in different ways. Some take a case to the judge. Others drop it outright. When a case is dropped conditionally, the prosecutor has some leverage, he said.

"It's at least something. It at least says to a defendant: You probably should behave," Osborne said.

Sexton agrees that conditional discharges are warranted in some circumstances. But she said they were overused in Manchester, and conditions were not followed up.

She also cautioned against taking domestic assaults lightly. A majority of homicides in New Hampshire are domestic related, she said.

"When you don't take misdemeanors seriously and you don't hold offenders accountable," she said, "you end up with felonies."

mhayward@unionleader.com


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