Leslie Cooley ‘05 discusses tenure as domestic violence prosecutor

October 3, 2008Duke Law News

Oct. 3, 2008 — Students interested domestic violence law heard from Leslie Cooley ’05, who discussed her experiences as an assistant district attorney in Mecklenburg County’s Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit at a lunchtime event Oct. 1. Cooley talked about the difficulties of helping people who were often too frightened or conditioned to violence to help themselves, and also about the rewards of “changing people’s lives for the better.”

Cooley, whose visit was sponsored by the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Advocacy Project, handled domestic violence cases for 10 months. She now prosecutes drug felonies.

“I thought at first I was going to hate working on domestic violence cases, to be perfectly honest,” Cooley said. “I thought it would be really depressing. But after a couple of months, I decided that I liked working there, that I had found my niche. I felt like I could make a difference in that courtroom.”

Cooley said domestic violence prosecutors learn a lot about the violent and angry aspects of human nature, which can be harnessed to dramatic effect in the courtroom.

“Sometimes less ‘cross’ is better, but sometimes you can provoke people into telling the truth,” Cooley said. “I had a case with a woman who was slammed into a wall in her bathroom by her boyfriend. He said he didn’t have anything to do with it and we went to trial. This guy looked like the kind that would get really angry -- sometimes you can tell when male defendants just hate women so much that they will get really angry at you while they’re on the stand.” In fact, he did lose his temper during Cooley’s pointed cross-examination.

“I finally got him so angry that he said, ‘Yeah, I hit her. I put her up against the wall, because she kept talking on the cell phone after I told her to stop.’ And that’s all it took.”

The ambiguity involved in ‘he-said, she-said’ domestic violence situations where there are no witnesses and each party claims the other is the abuser can also lead to unfavorable surprises in the courtroom, Cooley said.

“That has happened to me more than once,” Cooley said. “You get there, and you’re trying this case and you believed your victim at first, and under cross they get mad and start telling the truth. And you’re like, ‘What are you talking about? You hit him with the frying pan first? Excuse me?’ I’ve had to stand up in the middle of my redirect and say, ‘Your Honor, the state takes a voluntary dismissal of this case.’”

Ambiguity can be especially pronounced with same sex couples, where there is often no physical disparity and each party has suffered the same amount of physical harm, she explained.

Cooley said some of her current work is informed by her experience as a domestic violence prosecutor. One of the drug felony cases she handled involved a woman who called police because her husband had beaten her badly, not for the first time. Police arrested the husband, but also took the wife into custody because the couple’s house was being used to grow large quantities of marijuana.

“I looked at this case and said, ‘This is the cycle of violence,’” Cooley said. “I see this, and what I see is a woman who is so beaten down, and she has taken this charge because she is afraid, even though she was never a willing participant. So I dismissed her case.” There are often domestic violence issues in drug cases involving female drug mules who are abused and manipulated into transporting drugs, she said.

Cooley said she plans to work in the crimes against persons unit, dealing with some of the felonies engendered by the cycle of violence that often begins with domestic violence, after she completes her rotation in the drug felonies unit.
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