Los Angeles Divorce and Family Law Attorneys: Our Blog

Please Follow Our Blog, LIKE US on FACEBOOK and RETWEET Our Articles!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Dangers of Family Law

Grim reminders of the dangers of family law

by Karen Sloan

At 9:20 a.m. on June 2, Carey Hal Dyess walked into the converted single-story house that served as Jerrold Shelley's law office in Yuma, Ariz.

Dyess, 73, instructed an office administrator to move out of the way and then shot and killed the 62-year-old lawyer, who had been in the process of packing up his office and retiring.

The attack wasn't random. Shelley had represented Dyess' ex-wife in a bitter divorce in 2006. He was one of five victims of a rampage that lasted six hours and ended only when Dyess turned the gun on himself.

Family law attorneys reacted to the news of Shelley's death with sadness, but not surprise. At least five family law attorneys have been killed or violently attacked by clients' ex-spouses since February 2010, and the recent deaths have highlighted the safety risks they face. In addition to Shelley:

• Redmond Coyle, 61, was shot and killed outside his office in Pickens, S.C., on Feb. 3, 2010, in front of his wife and child. His killer was Jerry Crenshaw, the ex-husband of a woman Coyle had represented in divorce proceedings. After shooting Coyle, Crenshaw killed himself.

• Terri Melcher on June 11, 2010, was stabbed nearly 30 times in her law office outside Minneapolis by the ex-husband of a woman she represented in a child custody case. Melcher was able to persuade her attacker to stop the assault and survived. The attacker, Sheikh Nyane, turned himself in to police.

• Judith Soley, 65, was shot and killed on Feb. 16 alongside her client at a restaurant near Fresno, Calif., while on court recess in the client's divorce. The assailant was the client's estranged husband, who later killed himself.

• Criminal defense attorney Emmett Corrigan, 30, was shot and killed in the parking lot of a Walgreens outside Boise, Idaho, on March 11 — one day after he had filed divorce proceedings on behalf of the attacker's wife, who was one of his employees.

It's difficult to gauge whether these incidents are on the rise because major legal organizations, including the American Bar Association, don't track statistics on crimes committed against attorneys because of their work. But family law is seen as a riskier practice than most, because people in the midst of divorce or facing the loss of their children tend to be highly emotional and may direct their anger at their estranged spouse's lawyer.

"There's a saying that in criminal court, you have bad people at their best," said Texas Supreme Court Judge Debra Lehrmann, who spent more than 20 years as a family court judge. "In family law, you get good people at their worst. In criminal court, dangerous people are in handcuffs. In family court, you don't have any idea who is dangerous."

Family court judges helped push for improved courthouse security measures after numerous shootings during the past two decades, many of them perpetrated by participants in family law cases, Lehrmann said. But metal detectors and security guards in courthouses can do little to protect attorneys in their homes and offices.

"It's not uncommon," said Linda Lea Viken, a family law practitioner in Rapid City, S.D., and the president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "I've talked to women lawyers who have had guns pulled on them. I've talked to a lot of lawyers who were threatened. It seems like everyone has a story."

Viken has had her mailbox smashed and a golf ball sent through her office window; she suspects that both incidents were instigated by estranged husbands of clients. The only time she felt truly frightened for her safety, however, was when a man against whom she had obtained a protection order for a client followed her home from her office one night two years ago.

"We have a security system at our home now," she said, but many family law attorneys are solo practitioners or work in small offices and don't have the budget for elaborate security measures.

Todd Scott, vice president of risk management and member services for Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., began looking in 2010 for safety advice that he could pass on to his attorney clients and was surprised to find few formal resources. "I would go to these attorney panels and seminars, and almost everywhere I spoke, there was a local story about someone getting attacked or killed, and family law is at the top of the list," Scott said. "There are some blind spots in our profession, and I think this issue of safety is one of them."

Viken agreed that colleagues rarely discuss safety openly. "There's a concern among attorneys that they don't want to give anyone ideas about doing things and create copycats," she said. "And for some people, it's embarrassing when they are threatened or harassed. They think, 'How did I let this happen?' I guess it's not something we talk about, but maybe it should be."

Scott plans to fill that void with an online seminar in July titled "Safety and Security in the Law Office." He suspects that lawyer attacks have become more frequent in recent years as more attorneys have hung out their shingle as a result of the hiring slowdown at large firms.

Security consultant Jonathan Lusher has visited law firms with virtually no security beyond a receptionist, he said. He recommends that receptionists receive security training and have a plan in the event that a problem arises. Access to law offices beyond the reception area should be restricted, possibly through a buzzer system, Lusher suggested. Adding impact-resistant glass is another smart move for law offices, and attorneys should communicate with colleagues about their schedules and who is expected in the office, he said.

In Canada, the Ontario Bar Association formed a task force on lawyer safety in 2003 and later issued a personal security handbook with numerous recommendations, including that attorneys meet with potentially volatile clients in an open space or in a conference room with windows if the matter does not involve personal or privacy issues. The handbook also recommends brushing up on visual clues that someone might act out, such as clenching a fist or jaw and flushing of the face.

One way to reduce the likelihood of violence would be to make family law less adversarial, Lehrmann said. The legal community has been moving toward more collaborative approaches, she said.

Last year, the ABA launched its Fam­ilies Matter initiative, which encourages the use of alternative dispute resolution in family disputes. "The idea is to reduce the negative impact that the process can have on a family," she said. "The process itself can make a situation more dangerous, so it's best if you can defuse things before they ever get to that level."

Even the way that lawyers draft letters and court filings can set the tone for how their adversaries view them, Viken said. She always takes pains to preface any allegations recorded in documents with, "My client advised me that…".

"Family lawyers have to choose their words carefully," Viken said. "People in a divorce situation are not in their right minds. They are ratcheted up and they can strike out. The worst thing a lawyer can do is buy into that anger. I try to keep a calm attitude with my clients and keep them involved and informed. You can engender hatred and anger in how you handle a case."

Returning phone calls in a timely manner is also key, since people who feel they are being ignored may grow angrier over time and lash out, she said. It's also a smart idea to have a code word that will alert colleagues to emergencies. "Sometimes there is no way to tell how scary a former spouse of a client really is," Scott said. "And some lawyers just don't think anything like this will ever happen to them."

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Man Dies from Spousal Abuse

Josh Hilberling, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 220-pound former football player, died after he plunged 17 stories from his Oklahoma apartment building, an alleged victim of spousal abuse. Tulsa police say Hilberling, 23, was pushed out of his 25th floor apartment window at the University Club Tower on Tuesday by his wife, Amber Michelle Hilberling, 19, who is being charged with
first-degree murder. "We taught him to never hit a woman, but what we didn't think to teach him was to get away," his mother, Jeanne Hilberling, told ABC's affiliate KTUL. "We just will never forget him. He's one of a kind." "Anybody that knows Josh is going to miss that smile, but no one more than his proud military parents who wanted the world for son," she said. The couple had been married only a year, according to his parents, but just last month their son went to
Domestic Violence Intervention Services looking for help. It had been hard, they said, for him to admit he was a victim. They said Josh, who was in the Air Force, didn't leave because Amber was eight months pregnant with their first child.

"Most of the time you have a homicide similar to this and typically the woman is the victim," said Officer Jason Willingham, spokesman for the Tulsa Police. "I don't recall any situation that is similar in recent history, for sure." But Amber Hilberling's lawyer said that she is the victim of domestic violence. "This is a tragedy for everyone involved and what it wasn't --was a crime," Jason Corns told local television station KRMZ. Police received a call Tuesday afternoon from
witnesses who reported a suicide at the apartment tower, according to Willingham. Hilberling had fallen from the 25th floor to an eighth- floor parking garage. When paramedics arrived, police questioned witnesses and those who knew the couple, determining that Josh had been "pushed out the window, breaking the window and causing his death," said Willingham. "It was a heck of a fall." At first Amber Hilberling was arrested on second-degree murder, but later police changed it to first-degree when they looked at the evidence. "It tipped the scale," he said. So far, no charges have been filed, according to Susan Witt of the Tulsa District Attorney's office.
"Tulsa police are still investigating," said Witt. "When their investigation is complete, reports will be forwarded to the district attorney's office for review and a decision about charges."
Willingham said the couple had a history of domestic violence and there had been protective orders "on both sides." Tulsa police said that investigators found a protective order that that Josh Hilberling requested in May because he said he wife hit him on the head with a lamp and he
needed 21 stitches. The order was dismissed when the couple did not show up in court. "I can say we have seen absolutely no criminal evidence of wrong doing by Mrs. Hilberling," said Amber Hilberling's lawyer Corns, who said Josh was the aggressor.
An estimated 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey. About 37 percent of all domestic abuse victims are men, according to Denver clinical psychologist Jeanne King, who is author of "Abused Men." She co-founded the education advocacy group, Partners in Prevention.
Battered Men Don't Report Crimes

"They are silenced because men don't speak about it," she said. "It's two-fold. One is the shame – it's greater for men than women. There are also less resources available to men…Try to think about where a center is for abused men and you scratch your head."
Researchers began looking at husband battering cases in the 1970s. One study a Boston University described scenarios where women struck out at their husbands for just talking loudly.

Others said that after being in the house with children who would "get on my nerves" all day long, they got mad and hit their spouses. One woman said she became violent just because her husband was "such a bore."

"I was trying to wake him up, you know," she was quoted as saying in the study. " He was such a rotten lover anyway. So I'd yell at him and bit him to stir him up."

Other studies have shown that women are more apt to throw things or kick their husbands. Violence is also associated with sexism, lack of self-control and mental illness.

As for Amber Hilberling, she was released from jail Thursday on a $250,000 bond and will appear back in Tulsa County Court on June 15.

She is required to wear an ankle monitor and surrender any passport she owns while the murder investigation continues.

As the Hilberling family plans a private funeral service, they are broken-hearted over their son's violent death.

"I want people to remember who Josh was, not how he died," said his mother. "I want them to remember the kind compassionate friend who would do anything for anybody."

Josh Hilberling's father told ABC that the day his son died, he had been trying to leave the relationship for good.

"That's the only thing people need to know is that when you're trying to leave, it's the most dangerous time," said Jeanne Hilberling.

"You bet," said psychologist King. "Abuse is fundamentally about control and violence will escalate when a person feels they have lost control. There is no greater sense of loss than to see the victim walk out the door."

To find help for male spousal abuse, go to Partners in Prevention.