Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Four: Three Strikes)

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on May. 30th, 2012


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The Verdict

The presiding juror handed the bailiff a red file filled with verdict forms. Judge Yu flipped through them, then presented them to the clerk to read in open court. Richard stood.

“We, the jury, find the defendant, Richard Duncan, not guilty of the assault in the second degree” for intentional strangulation. “We, the jury,” the clerk read, “find the defendant, Richard Duncan, guilty of the lesser included crime of assault in the fourth degree.”

“We, the jury, find the defendant, Richard Duncan, not guilty of the assault in the second degree” for causing substantial bodily harm. “We, the jury,” the clerk read, “find the defendant, Richard Duncan, guilty of the crime of assault in the third degree.”

“We, the jury, find the defendant, Richard Duncan, not guilty of the crime of felony violation of a no-contact order,” due to the not-guilty verdict on the strangulation charge. “We, the jury,” the clerk read, “find the defendant, Richard Duncan, guilty of the crime of violation of a court order.”

“We, the jury, find the defendant, Richard Duncan, not guilty of the felony harassment.” ... “We, the jury,” the clerk read, “find the defendant, Richard Duncan, guilty of the lesser included crime of harassment.”

When it came to the aggravators in the case, the jury had been asked if the third-degree assault showed evidence of an ongoing pattern of psychological or physical abuse. The jury’s verdict was “Yes.”

It took Richard a moment to understand the full scope of the verdict, but then, smiling, he thanked the jurors.

Richard had just beaten a possible sentence of life in prison.

The enigma

MSU, the Minimum Security Unit at the Monroe Correctional Center, sits on a flat hilltop, just beyond a looming guard tower. Razor wire-topped fences delineate the prison’s perimeter, caging in a series of beige-colored buildings. To the east, on a clear day, the snow-frosted caps of the Cascade Mountains mark a jagged boundary on the horizon.

On an afternoon in late January 2012, in a nondescript conference room inside an MSU building, Richard Duncan, 39, sits at a table, a prison ID clipped to his shirt. He exudes a magnetic, affable charm, offset by moments of intense shyness.

Even though the trial took place more than six months before, he says he still doesn’t know why the jury only found him guilty of lesser charges, allowing him to evade life in prison. “Do I think people believed me?” he asks. “No. You can look at me and tell that I’ve done something wrong.” He laughs, but then becomes serious. “It’s been really eating me up inside,” he says. “The last thing I ever wanted to do was to hurt Brandy like that.”

When it came time for his sentencing, Richard, after avoiding plea bargains throughout the court case, struck a deal: For the assault in the third degree charge, he was sentenced to 12 months; for the aggravator he received 17 months. Remarkably, the other convictions did not lead to sentences due to a post-trial agreement.

As a result, Richard, instead of serving life in prison, will serve 29 months, minus 196 days for time served in King County Jail. That amounts to roughly 22-and-a-half months. “It still hasn’t sunk in,” he says, chuckling.

Enrolled in a mental health program at MSU, Richard says he doesn’t know what he’ll do after his release. He dreams of being a beekeeper or running a pumpkin farm but doubts parents would let their children near him. “They [would] think I’m the biggest piece of shit,” he says.

His sentence mandates he complete 12 months of probation, undergo alcohol counseling and, he says, participate in domestic violence treatment. But he thinks Brandy should attend similar treatment, since she hit him. “She still has an advocate,” Richard says. “Where’s my advocate?”

He says he longs to see his son, Ian. The separation nearly brings him to tears. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says. Though Richard wonders: Would Ian be better off if Richard stayed out of his life?

As for Brandy, the sentencing instituted a no-contact order that bars Richard from seeing her for five years. He confesses he still cares for her — after all, he says, he tried to care for her, protect her — but they shouldn’t be together. Which raises a question: If he admits he abused Brandy, how can her abuser also be her protector? “It’s an enigma,” Richard says.

Even with a 29-month sentence, he says it still feels as if he’s serving life, because if he slips into addiction after his release and commits the smallest offense, he’ll return to prison. He knows in everyone’s eyes, he’s seen as violent. But Richard views himself differently:

“To look at me and to think that I’m anything other than a white supremacist, look at my record and think that I’m anything other than a wife beater. If you look at me on paper, I’m not a nice guy. But would you say I’m bad person? I think I’m a nice guy.”


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