They are psychological terrorists. Ask anyone who has been a victim.
They terrorize with words. They paralyze victims with menacing behavior. They harm and sometimes murder. The mental and emotional anguish they instill is immeasurable. The damage can be enduring, causing victims to live in abject fear and trepidation. Some become withdrawn and reclusive, suffering acute anxiety, depression and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. [pullquote]
More than 6 million Americans are preyed upon each year. Most stalkers are men. Most victims are women. Given the serious danger that stalkers pose, it is deeply troubling that the legal system is grievously inadequate in protecting victims.
The recent experience of WCBS television anchor Diane Macedo in New York is a frightening example. According to police, an obsessed fan engaged in a relentless two-year campaign of harassment and stalking that can easily be described as “creepy.”
Richard Pagani obsessed over the newscaster online. He posted weird photographs of her on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. He hounded her with deviant, obscene messages. His crude sexual rants seemed both sick and scary. Repeatedly, he showed up at her workplace.
The stalking escalated when Pagani followed Macedo on a reporting assignment, banging on the window of her news vehicle as he tried to give her an apple. He was asked to leave, but wouldn’t. When the reporter continued to ignore him, he slammed the fruit onto the hood. That’s when cops were called. Pagani was later arrested and charges brought.
Police later went to his house and found a disturbing array of paraphernalia dedicated to Macedo and some other twisted stuff you really don’t want to know about. Trust me.
A slam dunk case of felony stalking? Think again.
Court appointed doctors claimed Pagani was not “competent” to stand trial, which means he could not be convicted of a crime. Under the law, a defendant is competent if he can understand the proceedings and assist in his defense. In this case, declaring Pagani unfit for trial is hard to fathom. You basically have to be frothing at the mouth, babbling incoherently and clutching Elmo in order to be found incompetent. Yet, Pagani was quite lucid. So, I don’t buy it.
But wait. Suddenly and magically a short time later, Pagani was pronounced competent. His lawyers struck a plea deal to a reduced charge of 3rd degree stalking, a mere misdemeanor. In exchange, their client consented to spend 90 days undergoing psychiatric treatment at a hospital. But it turns out that most stalkers don’t qualify for inpatient care. The hospital refused to admit Pagani. With that, the judge presiding over the case released him.
Just how this case will end is uncertain. But it illustrates how hard it is to obtain a felony stalking conviction, notwithstanding a plethora of evidence.
Why? Because in most states the burden of proof is too high. Often, the prosecution must prove not only that a defendant repeatedly followed or harassed another person, but that the stalker intended to cause the victim’s fear.
C’mon, how do you prove that? Defendants can always claim, “Gee…I didn’t mean to scare her.” These “specific intent” statutes make convictions next to impossible.
The law should be changed. A better standard is “general intent,” in which prosecutors need only prove the stalker’s actions, not the consequences. Thus, the mere act of repeatedly following or harassing a victim is enough for conviction. As long as a victim’s fear is reasonable, the element of intent has been met. Unfortunately, many states refuse to adopt this legal standard. As a consequence, prosecutions fail and stalkers walk. The victims resume living in fear.
The law has also fallen behind modern technology. The Internet has made it easier for stalkers to surveil, monitor and terrorize.
Predators uncover a myriad of personal information about their victims, including home addresses.
They employ GPS devices and computer spyware to track their targets. Under the guise of the First Amendment, they use social media to harass, intimidate and threaten.
Yes, there are some cyberstalking laws in place but they are not enough. Many of them do not cover the newer forms of technology.
Surprisingly, stalking is only a misdemeanor crime in many jurisdictions. Sentences are relatively light. So even when prosecutors do manage to secure a conviction, the stalker spends little time behind bars.
Macedo, a former FoxNews.com editor and Fox Business Network reporter, has done everything she can to protect herself. She obtained an order of protection. Unfortunately, stalkers often disregard such orders, treating them as meaningless scraps of paper.
Support systems for stalking victims rank somewhere between meager and non-existent. New York has an Address Confidentiality Program to staunch the flow of personal information disseminated on the Internet. But guess what? Stalking victims don’t qualify. Only victims of domestic violence do.
Lest you think otherwise, celebrities or public figures like Macedo are not the only targets. In fact, they are the exception, not the rule.
One in six women have been stalked, according government studies. These are people not in the public eye. Yet, their stalkers have become obsessed with them. And the consequences can be devastating for victims. Some are forced to dramatically alter their lives. They relocate and change their identities.
There were no stalking laws whatsoever until Hollywood actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by a crazed stalker 25 years ago. I covered the trial. I remember how the public outcry forced lawmakers to undertake new protections for stalking victims.
Sadly, these laws have not been tough enough. Statutes, enacted with good intentions, have been whittled away by judges who tend to favor the rights of the accused stalker over the alleged victim.
Unless and until this changes, the list of victims will grow, as stalkers roam freely terrorizing with impunity. I sincerely hope it doesn’t take another Rebecca Schaeffer to get people’s attention.
Gregg Jarrett is a Fox News legal analyst and former defense attorney.