February 18, 2013 9:55:48 AM
Sarah Fowler - firstname.lastname@example.org
On Aug. 15, 2011, John Alan Redden got into an argument with his wife that quickly escalated into a savage beating. Redden beat his wife, Ginger Redden, with a belt, jabbed her with a golf club, then kicked her as she collapsed on the floor. Then he climbed on top of her and began choking her with his bare hands. When Ginger Redden broke free from his choke hold, he told her he would kill her if she left him.
Last week, Redden pleaded guilty to aggravated assault-domestic violence, a felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
But Redden won't be serving any jail time. In fact, he won't even have to report to a probation officer, take an anger management class or even perform community service.
On Feb. 5, Circuit Court Judge Lee Coleman sentenced Redden to five years, suspended the sentence, and placed Redden on unsupervised probation, despite the victim's pleas that her ex-husband serve jail time.
Of the hundreds of cases prosecuted by the district attorney's office, court officials believe it is the first time a judge has ever handed down unsupervised probation.
Coleman's move to sentence Redden to unsupervised probation appears to be a means of circumventing a state law that prohibits anyone who has been on probation from being placed on probation again without serving jail time. Redden was previously convicted on a federal charge of possessing gambling machines, a felony.
During Redden's sentencing, Coleman called the abuse an "abnormality" and referenced the fact that Redden is a business owner and volunteers within the community. Ginger Redden produced medical records from other instances where she claimed Alan Redden abused her.
In the end, it made no difference.
No jail time
Light sentences for serious cases of domestic abuse are not uncommon, although Redden's case represents the most lenient sentence possible.
Since 2010, seven people have appeared in Lowndes County Circuit Court on the charge of aggravated assault-domestic violence. Four of the seven served no jail time.
According to the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Mississippi ranks second nationally in domestic violence.
Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Clemons, who prosecuted the Redden case, is concerned that the light sentence will send a negative message to other victims of domestic violence.
"For every woman that reports the fact that she's been the victim of domestic violence, there are countless others who do not," Clemons said. "My fear is that women who are in similar situations will see this and decide there is no point in coming forward."
Clemons said that the abuser's status in the community should not be grounds for leniency.
"You can be an upstanding member of the community and go home and beat your spouse. It's an insidious crime that happens behind closed doors," she said.
Redden's case is not the only instance where Coleman has handed down a light sentence. Since he first began serving on the bench in January 2011, two of the seven aggravated assault-domestic violence cases have gone before Judge Coleman: Alan Redden and Ambrosha Brandon.
Brandon pleaded guilty to the charge and received a suspended sentence of 15 years. Brandon was also sentenced to serve five years probation, pay court cost and a $1,200 fine.
That sentencing serves in stark contrast to Judge Lee Howard. Two of those seven cases were heard by Howard.
In May 2010, Jeremiah Douglas's probation was revoked after he committed aggravated assault-domestic violence. Howard sentenced Douglas to seven years with MDOC and ordered him to attend long term anger management classes while in custody. The court also retained jurisdiction of Douglas for one year.
In August 2012, Dominico Saddler pleaded guilty. Howard sentenced Saddler to 17 years with MDOC, five suspended, with 12 to serve. Saddler was also placed on five years post-release supervision and ordered to pay court costs and a $1,000 fine.
Judge Jim Kitchens has heard three of the seven aggravated assault domestic violence charges since 2010.
In November 2010, Kitchens sentenced Andrea Herod to five years, suspended the sentence, and placed Herod on five years of probation with an order to pay court costs and a $200 fine.
In December 2010, Kitchens sentenced Terry Lee Truelove to 20 years with MDOC as a habitual offender, meaning he will serve every day of his sentence.
In December 2011, Adam Swindoll pleaded guilty to aggravated assault-domestic violence. Kitchens sentenced Swindoll to a suspended sentence of 20 years with MDOC, five years probation and ordered to pay court costs, approximately $2,000 in restitution to the victim and a $250 fine.
Redden's case differs from the other six in the fact that he has unsupervised probation. The other defendants must each check in with MDOC to ensure they are following their probation guidelines. If they violate their probation at any point, they will have to serve the remainder of their sentence.
Since Redden does not have to check in with MDOC, there is no way to guarantee he will abide by his probation guidelines.
When questioned, Judge Coleman declined to comment on Redden's sentencing.
Becky Sims, the board president for the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said light sentences are not uncommon.
"Often times you have a good law when it's enforced properly and, for some reason, it may not be taken as seriously as it should be," Sims said. "This does happen. The horrible part about these things is oftentimes, somebody gets killed before a proper response is given. That's been happening for a long time. Unfortunately, domestic violence is not looked upon as a black-and-white crime. There seems to be personal feelings involved or a gray area. It is sometimes not considered to be a 'true crime' like burglary."
Joyce Tucker, the director at local abuse shelter Safe Haven, said she hoped judges would view domestic violence seriously, regardless of the social status of the offender.
"Domestic violence is serious, it doesn't matter about a person's status in the community," Tucker said. "We would hope that everyone would take domestic violence more seriously, including law enforcement and judges. It can be deadly for those involved."
Cases on the increase
Investigator Brett Watson with the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Department said the investigations division has been handling more aggravated assault-domestic violence cases since the law changed.
The law used to read that aggravated assault domestic violence was limited to "seriously bodily harm" such as a broken bone or "assault with a deadly weapon." In the past several years, strangulation has been added to the statute.
"With that element coming into play, more of them are being treated as felonies," Watson said. "We need to make the public aware that the law now includes choking as an element of aggravated domestic violence. Both potential victims and perpetrators need to be aware of that."
Safe Haven's Tucker said that she has worked with local law enforcement to teach them the signs of domestic violence.
"The CPD has allowed us to come in and train their officers on domestic violence and to make sure that those who are victims of domestic violence know about the protective order. The only thing a victim has to do is ask law enforcement and they will assist them," she said.
However, what the judges do is sometimes another matter.
"We would hope everyone would take the complaint of domestic violence seriously and the sentencing would be fair," she said.
For those who are in abusive relationships, Tucker encourages them to seek the help they need.
"We encourage (the victim) to reach out to domestic violence shelters. We have a licensed professional counselor on staff who can assist them. If they need emergency shelter we have that as well," she said.
The Safe Haven hot-line number is 662-327-6040.
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.