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Wife-beating is not a private matter

By Jeffrey Toobin
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
  • Jeffrey Toobin: Ray Rice case mirrors Alabama judge's case; both got plea deals
  • He says audio of Judge Mark Fuller documents beating; cops say wife had injuries
  • Fuller said issue should be resolved within family. Toobin: He's mistaken
  • Toobin: It's not up to couples to decide charges, it's a crime for legal system

Editor's note: Jeffrey Toobin is CNN senior legal analyst and author of "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The prominent man had an altercation with his wife at a hotel. He beat her up. There's even a recording of it. And what happened? A plea deal so generous that the abuser's arrest record will be expunged -- totally clean, as if the whole thing had never happened -- if he receives some counseling in the next few months.

Ray Rice? Yes. But Rice's case is strikingly similar to that of Mark Fuller, a sitting federal judge in Alabama.

Jeffrey Toobin
Jeffrey Toobin

On August 9, Fuller's wife called 911 from a hotel room in Atlanta, according to news reports. The woman identified as Kelli Fuller said her drunk husband was assaulting her. "He's beating on me. Please help me," she said. About a minute into the call, as dispatchers summon help, Kelli Fuller is heard saying "I hate you, I hate you." A male voice responds: "I hate you too," followed by dull noises in the background.

According to police, Kelli Fuller had cuts to her mouth and forehead and she told them her husband had thrown her to the ground, pulled her hair and kicked her after she confronted him over an alleged affair with a law clerk.

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Last week, the whole matter was swept discreetly under the rug. Mark Fuller accepted "pretrial diversion" offered by Atlanta prosecutors. Under the deal, the judge has to have a drug and alcohol evaluation -- which, according to his lawyer, he doesn't need. "He doesn't have a drug or alcohol problem and never has," Barry Ragsdale, Fuller's attorney, told Then, Fuller will have to undergo a once-a-week family and domestic violence program for 24 weeks. The judge can undergo that counseling at a location close to home in Alabama.

What happens after Fuller completes counseling? He plans to return to the bench, to pass judgment on others. As Fuller put it, "I also look forward to ... returning to full, active status in the Middle District of Alabama." (His cases have been temporarily reassigned. Taxpayers are paying him his full salary in the meantime.)

The parallels between the Rice and Fuller cases extend further. In both cases, the couples stayed together. After Ray beat his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, unconscious in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the couple married. Janay Rice attended the July meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that led to his appallingly lenient two-game suspension from the Baltimore Ravens.

NFL toughens domestic violence policy with six-game bans

After TMZ released the video of the elevator assault, Janay Rice released a statement of support for her husband, on Instagram. "To take something away from the man I love that he has worked for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific," she wrote, "If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take our happiness away, you've succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what love is."

Fuller is also attempting, apparently successfully, to repair the breach with his wife. "This incident has been very embarrassing to me, my family, friends and the court," he said in his statement, "I deeply regret this incident and look forward to working to resolve these difficulties with my family, where they should be resolved."

Consider that last line: "my family, where they should be resolved." This is precisely wrong, and it contributes to a fundamental misunderstanding about domestic violence. When husbands beat up their wives, that is not a matter that should be resolved within the family. It is a crime to be resolved by the legal system. In cases of domestic violence, the question is often raised whether the victim will "press charges." But it's not victims who press charges in this country, it's the state.

Ray Rice video prompts stories of #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft

It's not up to victims to decide whether their husbands should be prosecuted. Abusers damage the community, not just the women they assault. Whether the Rices and Fullers stay married is their business; but whether Ray Rice and Judge Mark Fuller committed crimes should be a question for prosecutors, and ultimately, juries to decide.

Unfortunately, it looks like the prosecutors failed in Atlantic City and Atlanta. The sweet deals for these two prominent defendants cannot be undone; the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution forbids it. All the rest of us can do is hope that the next prominent man who beats up his wife doesn't get off as easy.

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