Selami Ozdemir got a second chance.

Instead of facing charges that he abused his wife, the West Haven man got a deal: If he completed a 9-week course on family violence, the charges would be erased from his record. No prosecution, no jail time.

But that's not what happened.

Nearly a month before his first class was to start, Ozdemir abused his wife again. When he got out of custody, he returned home and shot her four times before killing himself.

The case has led to calls for changes in the way the state deals with domestic violence offenders, including adding more slots to the family violence education program so offenders do not go months without counseling or supervision, as Ozdemir did.

But State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz has raised a different concern: Why was Ozdemir given a second chance at all?

The family violence education program Ozdemir was to take is intended for people deemed at low or moderate risk of reoffending.

Yet Ozdemir did. So, allegedly, did Jose Lacouture, a West Hartford man who was admitted to the program after a domestic violence arrest in 2008. Last summer, he was charged with killing his wife.

Did the men's continued — and ultimately fatal — violence prove that they should not have gotten a second chance? Or could the family violence education program, had Ozdemir taken it, have prevented murder?

Is Ozdemir's case a tragic exception, one that slipped through the cracks despite the system's safeguards? Or is it a sign of a wider problem, suggesting the need for a better way to determine just who deserves to avoid prosecution?

Officials in the state judicial branch say their screening is extensive, based on the work of trained counselors using a well-vetted assessment test. They point out that only 13 percent of people who complete the program are arrested again within one year. But the screening cannot stop everything.

"There's no 100 percent predictive guarantee in any of this stuff," said Stephen R. Grant, director of family services for the judicial branch.

Cruz said the cases reveal a broader problem.

"I think that there's a push to resolve cases and it's at the cost of victims' lives," she said.

'Difficult to predict'

The first domestic violence call to Ozdemir's house came last September. Police found his wife, Shengyl Rasim, 25, nearby, with a bloody mouth and swollen welt on her cheek. She told police her husband beat and kicked her and pushed her against the crib where their 3-month-old daughter slept.

Ozdemir, 41, was arrested and charged.

Weeks later, Ozdemir was admitted to the family violence education program. In a report released last month following a 5-month investigation, the Ansonia-Milford state's attorney's office determined that "it appears that every proper step was taken in Mr. Ozdemir's pending domestic violence case."

The court's family relations office screened Ozdemir and, after a follow-up interview, deemed him eligible for the family violence education program.

A family relations officer learned from a domestic violence advocate that Rasim, who was staying at a domestic violence shelter, wanted her husband to receive treatment, not punishment, according to the state's attorney's report.

By law, a defendant cannot get into the program if he or she has been convicted of a family violence crime or been in the program before. Most felony charges would disqualify a defendant from the program, although a defendant facing a class D felony can get in if "good cause is shown."

Because the charges against him included a class D felony, Ozdemir's admission to the education program required showing "good cause." He apparently did, because on Nov. 5, a judge placed him in the program.

Because of a backlog, Ozdemir was not scheduled to start classes until February. He killed his wife and himself Jan. 17.

The state's attorney's report recommended increasing the number of slots in the program to reduce the wait time and supervising defendants before they complete the program.

"As this case exemplifies, it is difficult to predict who is 'at risk' of future violence," the report said.

'Red flags'

But Cruz said there were "red flags" that should have raised questions about Ozdemir's suitability for the program. If there is a lesson, she said, it is not that the state needs to expand the education program.

"We need better screening," she said. "Not everybody who shows up in court who has a domestic should be funneled into the family relations program."

One of the crimes Ozdemir was initially charged with — risk of injury to a minor, a class C felony — would have disqualified him from the program. But prosecutors determined that the evidence did not support the charge, and it would have been dropped if the case were prosecuted, according to the state's attorney's report.

To show "good cause," Ozdemir's attorney, David Avigdor, laid out the case in an application: The felony assault charge came from a verbal argument that did not involve a dangerous weapon and was not premeditated. No child was ever "in real danger of injury."

"In fact the father loves the children and the mother and children want to return home again as soon as possible," Avigdor wrote.

In court, Avigdor disclosed something else that Cruz said should have raised concerns about Ozdemir: He had previously faced charges that were dismissed and he had taken classes in an anger management program.

Cruz, a former prosecutor, questioned the decision to drop the risk of injury charge so early in the process.

"You don't know at that point the weight of your case," she said.

She also questioned whether Avigdor's explanation constituted "good cause," and noted that although it is a requirement for defendants like Ozdemir to get into the program, there is no definition of what good cause is.

The combination of Ozdemir's original charges, the questionable "good cause" and the previous anger management program should have merited a closer look at his suitability for a diversion program, Cruz said.

Ansonia-Milford State's Attorney Kevin D. Lawlor said there is a difference between what charges police have probable cause to arrest a person on and what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Prosecutors must go forward only with the latter.

In retrospect, Lawlor said, he did not know whether participating in the family violence program would have kept Ozdemir from offending again.

"Whether that would have been all that he would have needed, I don't think anybody would know that," he said. "Whatever [the program] can provide would be better than nothing."

But Lawlor said he did not come across anything during his office's investigation that suggested that, based on what people in the courthouse knew at the time, Ozdemir should not have been admitted to the program.

Too many chances?

Jose Lacouture also got a second chance.

Charged with assaulting his wife, Lacouture was deemed qualified for the family violence education program in October 2008. Less than a year later, she was stabbed to death.

"I killed my wife," he told police.

Lacouture pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter last month under the Alford doctrine, a plea that does not admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors probably have enough evidence to convict.

Like Ozdemir, Lacouture had previously been in a program involving anger management. When applying to the family violence education program in 2008, Lacouture told a court official that he had been in a diversionary program in Rhode Island, according to a court transcript. A state prosecutor who spoke with Lacouture told the judge that it "sounds similar" to the family violence education program, but sounded more like an anger management program.

Even if the anger management course was for something other than domestic violence, Cruz said the fact that a defendant showed continued violence after taking it suggested an underlying issue that required more than a 9-week course.

"You shouldn't be getting diversion time after time," she said. "The diversion program is for people that are going to be amenable to treatment."

She worries such cases send a message to victims and offenders that domestic violence isn't being taken seriously.

"It is very difficult for a victim to call the police in domestic violence," Cruz said. "It's scary. It's a dangerous time for the victim and it usually takes a lot for the victim to say, 'you know what, I need to call the police.' So once the victim does that and the offender gets diversion, the victim kind of loses a little bit of faith in the system, unless the diversion actually works."

Domestic violence defendants should be given a second chance only if it is their first time in court, Cruz believes. After that, a person should not get more opportunities to avoid criminal charges.

"We're sending a message that this is something that isn't such a big deal, and it is a big deal," Cruz said. "People die because of domestic violence."

Windham State's Attorney Patricia M. Froehlich praised Lawlor's recommendations in the Ozdemir case, but she voiced concerns about the use of the family violence education program. Few domestic violence cases are appropriate for diversion, she said.

"Domestic violence will exist for as long as society accepts it, and this society accepts it," she said. "When you get a legislative penalty that is merely a program and a dismissal, that is societal acceptance of family violence.

Earlier this year, Froehlich testified before legislators on a proposal to tighten the admission criteria for the family violence education program. The proposal, part of a set changes that grew out of a task force on domestic violence, would have disqualified a defendant from the program if he or she was charged with second-degree threatening — defined as intentionally placing or attempting to place another person "in fear of imminent serious physical injury."

Froehlich argued that someone who threatens future violence should not get the benefit of having his or her record erased.

But the change was not included in the bill that ultimately passed.

Erika Tindill, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, endorses the concept of a diversionary program for some offenders. But she believes it should be offered to fewer people, and that the system for determining who qualifies should be reviewed.

Even before the Ozdemir case, Tindill, who prosecuted domestic violence cases in Florida, had concerns about the prosecution of less serious domestic violence cases in Connecticut.

"If prosecutors were proceeding with prosecution more often, perhaps we could cut down those numbers of people who do reoffend," she said.

Screening

Grant, from the judicial branch, said it's not that too many people are getting into the family violence education program.

"Not that many are," he said. "We are screening out what's appropriate and what isn't — or we're attempting to, within the predictive validity of any instrument."

Judges make the final decision to grant or deny a request to enter the family violence education program. During this fiscal year, it is projected that 4,646 people will be referred to the program.

One thing that doesn't disqualify someone, Grant said, is a previous anger management course.

"The number one thing anybody will tell you about domestic violence, you don't go to an anger management class," he said. "It's like a cardinal sin. Domestic violence is not about anger management. Domestic violence is about power, control, intimidation, imperialism, lack of communication skills, oppression. It's about controlling behaviors."

The family violence program teaches interpersonal skills and an understanding of power and control dynamics. The approach is aimed at breaking down problematic behaviors and building healthy ones to replace them.

It's not for everyone. In the most recent quarter, 71 percent of people in the program completed it.

"Those programs are most effective typically for the first-time offender or certainly the second-time offender that doesn't have a serious charge," Grant said.

To determine their risk level, all family violence defendants are given a screening assessment.

The assessment rates offenders on 11 factors. It looks for whether there is evidence of non-family assaults or criminal activity; prior violence or threats against family members, including pets; a history of violating court orders, related to domestic violence or not; substance abuse at the time of family violence; evidence of a weapon — defined broadly — in family violence; verbal or emotional abuse; the frequency of family violence in the past six months, and whether it has escalated.

It also asks about employment and whether the defendant has ever assaulted his or her partner in front of children.

Each item gets scored — from "0" to "2" or "3," depending on the item. A score over 12 suggests a moderate to high risk to reoffend. Fifteen or more suggests high risk. The family relations counselors also give their own rating of whether there is imminent risk of violence.

The screening instrument has been tested. Kirk Williams, a sociology professor at the University of California, Riverside, helped the state develop the instrument and has since evaluated it.

Williams looked at the risk scores of more than 7,000 defendants screened in 2005 and 2007. He then tracked their cases to see if they had been arrested for a new family violence offense within 18 months. Among those with the lowest scores — 0 to 3 — 17.5 percent were rearrested. Of those who scored 12 or higher, 37.6 percent were.

"Evey single analysis that we've done in each of these samples we see that pattern," he said. "As the risk score goes up, the likelihood of reoffending goes up."

The screening and the definitions it uses have been revised 22 times. Grant said it will likely be revised again to incorporate six factors that seem to play a role in lethality: Whether a divorce or separation is pending; whether the defendant has threatened to kill his or her partner; attempted strangulation; if the victim thinks the offender is capable of murder; violently jealous or controlling behavior; and violence during pregnancy.

Getting into the family violence education program requires another step. It can include family relations officers conducting separate, in-depth interviews with the victim and defendant, although defendants can apply for the program without going through the interview process.

Even a highly predictive screening test will never be perfect, in part because the information that goes into it — criminal records, interviews — can be flawed or incomplete, Williams said.

"There's always going to be a source of error, even if you knew all the things that predict it," he said. "Social and behavioral sciences have made a lot of progress, but we still don't know how to accurately predict an individual's behavior."

Evidence mixed

For those who do complete the program, 13 percent are arrested again within one year. Grant said it is an unusually low recidivism rate.

National research on other batterer intervention programs offers a less clear picture.

Programs like Connecticut's family violence education program proliferated in the late 1980s as states — including Connecticut — passed laws requiring arrests in domestic violence cases.

Early evaluations offered promising results, but more recent evaluations using more rigorous methods found the programs produce little or no reduction in battering, according to a 2003 report by the U.S. justice department's National Institute of Justice.

"The methodological limitations of virtually all these evaluations, however, make it impossible to say how effective [batterer intervention programs] are," the report said.

Tindill said it would be useful to have data about reoffending in Connecticut for more than a year after defendants complete the program.

Perhaps the state should consider beefing up the program to make it more than 9 weeks, she said. But she said there are limits to what a program can achieve.

"There's only so much that we can expect from a criminal justice sanction in terms of healing the batterer, in terms of changing the battering behavior," she said. "The point has to be that we are punishing you for this crime. We've determined this is a crime, you've committed it, we're going to punish you."

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