Nation/World

Jury Decision Expands Options For Harassed Women

When she jogged the rural roads of Maine’s coast, he was there. He was there when she went to work or school, or played softball. During tender and what should have been private moments with her lover, he was there, peering in the window.

She had spent only two dinner dates with the man, but she learned to fear him. She also learned to use a firearm, carrying the .357 Magnum handgun everywhere she went, even room to room in her condominium.

But in the end, Joanne Stinson’s most potent weapon in driving away the man who stalked her for 19 months was a civil lawsuit. In a decision that lawyers and advocates say helps to expand the options of women seeking to escape stalkers, a jury has awarded Stinson $150,000 in compensation and $500,000 in punitive damages from 37-year-old Richard C. Slaughter.

Because not even bankruptcy protects losing defendants from punitive damages, Stinson and her attorney, William Knowles, have turned the tables on her stalker. Slaughter’s pay can be attached for damages, for instance.

“We can pursue him indefinitely,” Knowles said of Slaughter, who has moved back to Virginia, where he lived before he came to Maine and where he had compiled a frightening record of abuse against women, including a murder charge.

“I’ve never heard of a case like this, never,” said Michele Olvera, an attorney for the federally funded Battered Women’s Justice Project in Pennsylvania.

Gwen Holden, executive vice president of Washington’s National Criminal Justice Association, said that Knowles’ strategy in attacking Slaughter is “consistent with the creativity states are going to have to use to deal with this problem.”

The approach can be used even as criminal complaints are being lodged, and it may be catching on elsewhere. Civil lawsuits similar to Stinson’s are pending in Texas and Oregon.

Stinson’s victory in court on March 17 overcame arguments from Slaughter’s attorney, David Van Dyke, that she concocted the case against his client as a cover for what he called her “dirty little secret” - that Stinson was in love with a woman and was moving in with her. Van Dyke implied to the Cumberland County Superior Court jury that Stinson, 31, was using the lawsuit to keep her family from learning about her private life.

The jury deliberated for two hours before ruling that, even without physically harming Stinson, Slaughter had caused her intentional harm and violated her right to privacy. While the individual incidents of Slaughter’s stalking - repeated telephone calls, slashed tires, doors glued locked - were not enough under Maine law at the time to bring a criminal indictment, their threads wove a shroud of terror for the jury.

“What I went through wasn’t a piece of cake,” said Stinson, who at police urging kept a diary of Slaughter’s unwelcome presence in her life, and who continues to carry a gun. “But at least for somebody else now the steps will be easier.”

Stinson met Slaughter on Christmas Eve in 1991 at her aunt’s house in Prospect Harbor, Maine, where the family ran a fish canning business that employed Slaughter. She was there to pick up her grandmother and only vaguely remembers being introduced to Slaughter.

Later, a cousin would tell her that after she left, Slaughter said, “I want to go out with her. Set me up on a date.”

Within days, the cousin had called and Stinson went on what she thought was a platonic dinner date in Portland.

“He was fine, he really was a gentleman,” she recalled last week.”A Southern gentleman was how everyone described him.”

They had a second date, but she told him there would not be another. He showed up for a third date anyway.

“The clicker for me was when he set up a date that I told him I could not make,” Stinson said. Slaughter, she said, went to the date site and then to her home.

“He turned strange. He started getting real controlling,” she said. She recalled him accusing her: “‘Where were you? You stood me up.”’

In March 1992, Slaughter hired a private investigator to track Stinson. Knowles said that Thomas D’Alfonso was hired on the pretext that Slaughter was dating a woman he thought might be cheating on him.

Stinson said she knew Slaughter was following her. “I even confronted him, but nothing I did would stop him,” she said. She obtained a restraining order against him in district court in Portland in October 1992.

According to Stinson’s diary, few days went by without some evidence of Slaughter’s presence. Her telephone would ring on five, sometimes 20 occasions in a day. The caller would hang up, laugh or breathe heavily. She was followed to the airport, the mall, to her jobs at L.L. Bean in North Conway, N.H., and later in Freeport, Maine.

Slaughter was spotted looking in the window of her condominium. He followed Stinson to her softball games, and was seen in the woods near her home.

In September 1992, Detective Talbert Williams of the Police Department in Topsham, where Slaughter lived, was informed that Slaughter was stalking a woman in the Portland area. Williams did a background check and what he discovered chilled him.

Williams found that in 1981 a Virginia jury had indicted Slaughter in the murder of 24-year-old Olivia Thorndike, who had rejected Slaughter after a few dates in 1980. The indictment said he had stalked her at home and work and harassed her by telephone and mail.

During the same period, Slaughter was also found guilty of four misdemeanor assaults on women in Henrico County, Va.

When a key witness in the Thorndike case disappeared, Virginia officials, fearful of losing the case, withdrew the indictment but retained the right to refile it.

Slaughter’s record continues to worry Stinson and cause concern for other women.

“I still have a lot of fear with this guy that it’s not going to end with me,” she said. “You never know when that lightbulb’s going to go off again.”



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