Federal Domestic Violence Law Tested Man Charged With Spousal Abuse Is First To Be Tried In Federal Court
The bizarre odyssey of Chris and Sonya Bailey began when they were seen arguing at a bar near their West Virginia home.
It ended six days later, when Bailey carried his unconscious wife into a hospital emergency room in Corbin, Ky. In between, they apparently traveled hundreds of miles through three states.
Authorities say Sonya Bailey spent at least part of that time locked in the trunk of the car. And her body was a veritable road map of abuse - myriad wounds, apparently inflicted at different times.
In May, this atypical case of alleged spousal abuse is scheduled to come to trial in an atypical place: federal court. Bailey is the first person prosecuted under a new federal law, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
The law, part of the omnibus crime bill adopted in August, makes crossing a state line to assault a spouse or domestic partner a federal crime.
“If you can’t prove what happened in a given state, that state’s criminal jurisdiction stops. When you have no idea where the injuries happened, no state may have jurisdiction to prosecute without federal law,” said Victoria Nourse, a professor of criminal law at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
In state court, Bailey would have been charged with malicious wounding, a felony which carries a 2- to 10-year sentence in West Virginia.
The federal law, however, provides for up to 20 years in prison for “permanent disfigurement or life-threatening bodily injury” to a spouse or domestic partner; up to 10 years for “serious bodily injury to (a) spouse or if the offender uses a dangerous weapon”; and up to life in prison for the death of a spouse.
Nourse, who worked on the bill as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee staff, said the law provides protection where state laws may fail.
“At times, there will be an assault in one state, continuing in another state,” Nourse said. “Each individual assault may not be sufficient for state authorities to get involved, but when you add it all up, it’s a continuing course of serious activity.”
Bailey also is charged with kidnapping his wife, a federal crime that carries a possible life sentence.
Using credit card receipts and motel registrations, police traced Bailey’s rambling journey through southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Ohio, including stops in Cincinnati and Georgetown, Ky., where people reported seeing Bailey, but not his wife, said state police Sgt. L.L. Nelson.
Bailey has refused to talk to police since his arrest in Kentucky; his wife remains in a coma, unable to help in the investigation.
But at a preliminary hearing, FBI Special Agent Scott Francis said friends of Sonya Bailey had said she wanted to end her three-year marriage but was afraid of her husband.
Francis testified that Bailey sometimes locked both his wife and his 14-year-old stepdaughter inside their house.
According to Francis, the daughter told the FBI that in January 1994, Bailey forcibly dragged his wife downstairs from the daughter’s bedroom, where she wanted to spend the night, to their own bedroom. Sonya Bailey filed a domestic violence petition after that incident, but later dropped it.
Investigators believe that Sonya Bailey was attacked either late Nov. 25 or early Nov. 26 at the couple’s St. Albans home, where they found a lot of blood at the head of the bed and in the bathroom.
Emergency room doctors re ported that Sonya Bailey had a large open wound on her forehead. She also had two black eyes, signs of rope burns on her wrists and ankles, and bruises on her neck, chin and forearms. The wounds appeared to have occurred at different times.
“It was difficult to tell just what happened where,” said West Virginia state police Sgt. J.J. Dean.
Emergency room doctors in Kentucky said Bailey was calm when he brought his wife into the hospital, asking permission to lock his car.
Doctors told the FBI that the open wound on her forehead initially was treatable. However, she had lost a lot of blood and apparently was without oxygen for an extended period of time.
Investigators speculated that Sonya Bailey spent at least part of the time in the car’s trunk, where they found blood and scratch marks that looked like she tried to pry her way out with a screwdriver or other tool.
Although Bailey has refused to talk, his brother said he could not have committed the acts he is charged with.
“Chris is not a violent person,” David Bailey said at his brother’s hearing. “I think that all of this simply highlights that nothing good happens to someone who goes out and drinks after midnight. Chris maintains to this day that when she wakes up, she will clear him.”