Massachusetts Mother Held For Making Death Threats Against The Court and DSS Workers

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, there are a few families for whom this holiday season has not begun so well.

Let’s turn to Hampshire, Massachusetts, for example. On Wednesday, as the rest of us prepared for family gatherings and big dinners, Debra B., 53, of Northampton (hereinafter, the “Defendant”) learned that she would be spending the holiday as a guest of the Commonwealth. It seems that she and the Department of Social Services (“DSS”) have had a disagreement of sorts.

The disagreement allegedly included some threats.

Threats that have brought to light what one might call a dysfunctional family situation.

The case has a bit of a history to it. It apparently began back in 2006 when the Defendant’s son was taken away from her by DSS. This was allegedly occasioned by the 7-year-old autistic boy’s complaint that she had duct-taped him to a chair and threatened him with a knife. Most of the criminal charges against the Defendant in that incident were eventually dropped.

The heated custody fight over her son did not end so easily.

As the battle between DSS and the Defendant raged, she is alleged to have done certain things which were of concern to the Commonwealth. One such thing is that she was reported to have looked up the home addresses of some social workers on the Internet. She is also said to have threatened to shoot Judge Judd J. Carhart at a hearing and told another woman in court that she was “in her crosshairs.”

This landed her in jail on September 8th.

Perhaps misunderstanding the message this was supposed to have sent, the Defendant allegedly threatened to kill a different judge, as if this would clear things up.

Things were not cleared up. Law enforcement sought a search warrant for her apartment instead.

That did not make things any better for the Defendant.

Police say they found a .38-caliber gun in her apartment, along with a list entitled, “People I want to kill.” The list included the names of judges and social workers in the custody case involving her son.

And so it was that a long and contentious dangerousness hearing began in Hampshire Superior Court last week to determine whether the Defendant was too much of a threat to be out of custody during the pendency of her new criminal case.

The hearing began last week. It was kicked off with tidbits like testimony by Detective Peter Fappiano who told the court that the Defendant’s teenage daughter had told him last November that her mother was planning to use the gun to forcefully take her son from Providence Hospital, where he was in care.

The hearing continued into this week. On Tuesday, Detective Fappiano testified that he obtained the search warrant after a DSS worker told him that the Defendant had threatened to kill people in court. Among the other items recovered at the Defendant’s apartment, Fappiano said, were a 2006 suicide note and newspaper clippings pertaining to her arrest 18 years ago for shooting her husband in Alabama. The articles reported that she was found not guilty by reason of mental defect in the non-fatal shooting, said Fappiano. Also allegedly found were a loaded gun along with the list titled “People I want to kill”.

As if to eliminate any doubt as to the Defendant’s somewhat difficult family relations, her teenage daughter testified against her on Wednesday. She gave the court a first-hand account of how her mother had told her she planned to free her son from Providence Hospital at gunpoint, if necessary. Her mother also told her she was writing the names of people she wanted to kill on bullets.

While the rather unusual “to do” list and named bullets might reflect a somewhat organized person, such evidence did not score points in favor of the Defendant. However, her attorney, Lee D. Fournoy, did try to score such points by attacking the credibility of the Commonwealth’s witnesses.

For example, the detective had previously testified that the Defendant had refused a “request” by police to get on the ground. However, when asked about certain injuries the Defendant is said to have sustained, the detective was alittle less informed. He told the attorney that he had no knowledge that she suffered facial lacerations and lost a tooth when a State Police tactical unit wrestled her to the floor during her arrest.

Also during cross-examination, Detective Fappiano acknowledged that he did not seek a warrant to search for the weapons until the DSS worker told him that the Defendant had had threatened people in a juvenile court hearing. Further, the attorney brought out that her client’s teenage daughter’s husband, 29 years of age, who had also told the police about the Defendant’s weapon, had been previously arrested for shoplifting from a supermarket. Detective Fappiano also admitted that the Defendant’s son-in-law told him he had discussed using the gun to rob the Burger King outlet in Northampton, where his wife was working.

When the son-in-law testified, Fournoy questioned him about a dispute he had with the Defendant after he was charged with shoplifting at the Big Y Supermarket last November. The witness denied that this had been the reason he approached the police with evidence that his mother-in-law had a gun.

“If you know somebody’s going to kill somebody, what would you do?” he asked.

The attorney declined to answer. Thereafter arguing to the court, she indicated that much of the evidence was either unsubstantiated or overblown. She portrayed the Defendant as a poor single mother who is trying to retrieve her son from state custody. “There is no evidence to say that this is a dangerous woman,” she told the court, “that this is a killer.” The lawyer then attempted to discredit the testimony of her client’s daughter and son-in-law by arguing that their testimony was part of an ongoing battle over other matters.

The Honorable Judge Bertha D. Josephson did not agree. On Wednesday, she ordered that the Defendant be held without bail until she is tried on charges that she threatened Department of Social Services and court workers.

In ruling that the Defendant was too dangerous to release, Judge Josephson recited some of the r evidence presented by the prosecution: that she had threatened to kill Judge Lillian Miranda; that she planned to take her 7-year-old autistic son at gunpoint from Providence Hospital, where he is being treated; that she marked bullets with the names of people she intended to kill; that she told Judge Judd J. Carhart in a prior court session, “I’ll kill you too.”

The court ordered that the Defendant’s trial take place within 90 days and scheduled a pretrial conference for Dec. 4.

No death threats against Judge Josephson have (yet) been reported.

Samuel’s take:

Maybe it’s my fault.

During the various examples I have given in this daily criminal law blog of the membership of the “Hey, I’ll Bet I Can Make This Situation Worse” Club, perhaps my lessons have been incomplete. I have advised readers not to run, jump, fight or out-talk law enforcement. I have not, though, said much about threatening them.

I am reasonably sure I have not said anything about threatening judges.

Well, let me rectify things. While not technically a part of law enforcement, judges are the ones who get to make rulings and hand down sentences. It is unwise to threaten them.

You will note that lawyers often “object” to a judge’s ruling. An “objection!” is not legalese for “I’ll kill you for that!”. You see, an experienced criminal defense attorney would know these things.

What your mother told you about “sticks and stones” does not hold true in the criminal justice system when it comes to threats. Making threats is a crime in itself. This is true whether these threats are made to a judge, DSS worker, janitor or son-in-law.

Having illegal firearms at home is another crime. It also tends to give a nasty spin to any alleged death threatl. Keeping handy little “To Kill” lists and named bullets around…well…kind of defies description. Suffice it to say…it does not help.

Except for the prosecution, that is.

Normally, the question of whether a defendant will be held pending criminal charges comes down to an issue of bail. Bail is set, or not set, based upon the likelihood that the defendant will return to court to face the charges. An exception to this is a dangerousness hearing. Here, the issue is to determine whether it is unsafe for the community to have the defendant released under any circumstances during the pendency of the charges.

Yes, these would be the same charges of which the defendant is still presumed innocent.

Confusing, isn’t it?

If you are unhappy about family issues or having difficulties with entity’s like DSS, or a judge, the self-help approach of violent threats, or actually committing the acts, is not a particularly great idea.

While perhaps helpful for a run at the presidency of “Hey, I’ll Bet I Can Make This Situation Worse”, it is disastrous to your liberty.

Better to hire an experienced attorney to help you do it the legal way and join some other club.

Have a good and law-abiding weekend!

Samuel Goldberg is the senior criminal defense attorney at the firm of Altman & Altman, LLP. A former prosecutor in New York, he has worked as a Boston defense attorney over 18 years. He has published various articles regarding the practice of criminal law and frequently provides legal analysis on radio and television, appearing on outlets such as the Fox News Channel, Court TV, MSNBC and The BBC Network.

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