Family killings scrutinized

■ Agency to study four recent domestic violence deaths to see if system is to blame

By Chad Halcom
Macomb Daily Staff Writer

The use of deadly force by litigants in Macomb County's family court will be reviewed by a county agency to see if the system's failings contributed in any way.

Jenny Schultz, director of community development for Mount Clemens-based Turning Point, said Friday that the county Domestic Violence Council is commissioning a "fatality review," which will serve as a study of domestic cases that turn deadly and hopefully offer clues to where the system may be
failing people.

"We've certainly seen cases where battered women or victims have come repeatedly to the civil or criminal court system seeking help, and they've been denied that help," Schultz said. "But so far, we haven't seen any hard evidence that this lat est case (the Julia Wells homicide) is one of those kinds of cases."

Last week 38-year old Daniel A. Wells of Warren was arraigned as lab recovered in a hospital on a first-degree murder charge in I August 15th drowning death at his 3-year old daughter, Julia Rose Wells. He has since recovered enough to be transferred to the Macomb County Jail while he awaits a preliminary examination Aug: 26.

Wells is the fourth man in just two years either to kill or attempt to kill someone after going through contentious court proceedings in front of Macomb County Circuit Judge Antonio P Viviano in the court's family division.

Attorney James Galen, who represented one of Wells' violent predecessors, said Friday he has been in discussions with Wells' family about possibly representing him in the case, but nothing has been resolved.

If he does get the case, he said he will likely use a similar defense to what he had used with shooting defendant Calvin Smart, arguing that the county's strenuous and insensitive family court system had induced a kind of temporary insanity.

"I would consider that defense again," he said. "No man in his right mind would willingly drown his own daughter. This is a rough process on people and I know because I've been there and I've seen what they (the courts) can do."

Prior to Wells was Harry D. Stanley, who shot and killed the mother of his 8-year-old son June 9 on a day he was scheduled to pick up their child for visitation time. Stanley, who later shot himself in northern Michigan before police found him, had been in family court proceedings with victim Paulette Litzan before Viviano.

She had requested a personal protection order which Viviano denied. Calvin Smart, Galen's previous client, faced charges of assault with intent to murder and felony firearm charges in the 2002 shooting of his estranged wife, Laura Smart, just outside the court building following a contentious hearing over child custody in Viviano's court.

Jurors acquitted him of the intent to murder charge, but convicted him on two lesser gun offenses, after Galen argued that the county's insensitive Friend of the Court system would not consider his needs as a parent and drove him over the edge.

Viviano himself said he could not comment specifically on the Wells case, since Mr. Wells recovered and his divorce from Nora Wells remains a pending case on Viviano's court docket. But he attributes the rash of violence to the emotionally volatile nature of family court cases.

"Of course it's a tragedy," he said of the violence. "It's family court, and you do the best you can with people. But sometimes people's emotions do get the better of them."

Just how much blame should go to a judge like Viviano, or any specific problem in the system such as a given law or court procedure, is something that will be addressed in the study.

Turning Point, which generally serves as an advocacy and protection group for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, has held protests over court failures in Macomb County in the past — particular after the Litzan shooting when Stanley was still at large.

But the group was reluctant to blame Viviano specifically, and Schultz acknowledged that situations of domestic violence or controlling homes are often the most dangerous around the time that the victim leaves the abuser.

Of cource it's (violence) a tragedy. it's family court and you do the best you can with people. But sometimes people's emotions get the best of them

- Judge Anthony P. Viviano - Macomb County Circuit Court

"As a matter of separation of loss of control, that's the time when as the abuser you'd go to the most extreme measures to get control back," she said.

William Staugaard, an attorney who represented Litzan in the court case before her death, said he thinks it's simply "an anomaly" that so many violent acts have stemmed from cases in Viviano's court, and notes that even if Litzan had succeeded in getting a personal protection order it wouldn't have prevented Stanley from shooting her or helped the police catch him sooner.

"Crazy people are not going to be stopped by a PPO. People are deluding themselves if they think that's what a PPO accomplishes," he said. "And this could just as easily have been any of the other family court judges."

Staugaard, who has handled many domestic and family court cases, agrees with others that the process is often grueling and even insensitive to people's needs, and he advocates use of some court programs like alternative dispute resolution or the SMILE (start making it livable for everyone) program in family court as tools that can sometimes help defuse emotional bombs.

Also in Viviano's court recently was Timothy Berner, the suspect in the shooting death of Sterling Heights police officer Mark Sawyers, who had been involved in recent court proceedings over a 1994 paternity court case with a local woman in Viviano's court some months before the June 4 shooting. But there is no clear connection between that shooting and any aspect of Berner's personal or home life.