THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

New law gives more protection to victims of stalking, abuse

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / February 10, 2010

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Ten years ago Sandy Berfield received a package at her Everett apartment that she thought was from her sister. It wasn’t. It was a bomb, and it exploded and killed her.

A criminal investigation led by a rookie district attorney named Martha Coakley produced evidence showing that a man accused of stalking Berfield had set the package at her doorstep. Steven S. Caruso, the handyman who started stalking Berfield while she was working at a local restaurant, was convicted of murder and is spending the rest of his life in prison. but many victims’ advocates felt then, and have felt for the past decade, that Berfield’s death was preventable.

A bill signed yesterday by Governor Deval Patrick, after a lengthy and emotional ceremony at the State House, extends criminally enforceable protection orders to victims of stalking or sexual abuse who do not know those menacing them.

“As a community, we cannot allow victims of abuse to live in fear of their perpetrator,’’ Patrick said. “This new law closes a glaring loophole by ensuring the full extent of the justice system is available to protect sexual assault victims.’’

Under the old law, victims of sexual abuse or stalking could petition the courts for a protective order only if the abuser or stalker was a family member, someone living in their home, or someone with whom they had a “substantial dating relationship.’’

Protection orders are one of the few legal instances where police have no discretion: If someone violates an order, he or she must be arrested.

Berfield had no such protection on Jan. 20, 2000.

The battle to bring protective orders to victims of attacks from strangers began around the same time, and Berfield’s family took up the cause after her death. Yesterday marked the culmination of a decade’s worth of effort.

“It has been a long road; it’s been too long,’’ said Cheryl Darisse, Berfield’s sister. “My worst fear was that someone else would lose their life before this passed, and hundreds or thousands of victims were tortured throughout these years. Knowing that there was something we could have done sooner to help - that’s upsetting.’’

Police and law enforcement officials from around the area, including Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, and Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley were in attendance, as were leaders of victims’ rights groups, including Mary R. Lauby, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., and Stephanie DeCandia from the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

“We’ve learned from years of advocacy and working with survivors that restraining orders are effective tools in the prevention of harassment and violence,’’ Lauby said. “When victims are safe, they are better able and more likely to participate in criminal justice interventions that hold offenders accountable.’’

For Coakley, whose office supported the legislation and who also attended yesterday’s ceremony, it was back to business as usual as the state’s attorney general.

“It has been fun getting back to the terrific work we do. . . . It is work that I love,’’ Coakley said in an interview with the Globe. “My work as attorney general has always been to speak for the victims and level the playing field, so I’m happy to do that.’’

Originally, the legislation was intended to apply only to victims of stalking, but a local law firm, taking up the cause of a teenager who was raped by four strangers, prompted a second look.

“This girl came to us saying she went through the criminal process and the boys were convicted but got out on probation - she just wanted to go to school and go to her senior prom without being harassed by these boys,’’ said Susan M. Finegan from the firm of Mintz Levin. “We got her some safety, but we could only go so far. We worked to redraft the legislation, expanding it to include sexual assault.’’

The bill took 10 years to pass, finally winning unanimous approval in the House of Representatives and the Senate on Feb. 4. Now, violation of a protective order carries a fine of up to $5,000 or 2 1/2 years in prison, or both.

“My sister deserved that protection, and she didn’t get it,’’ Darisse said. “She had lost her life for nothing if nothing changed.

“I can’t even put it into words the frustration and difficulty to have to struggle through all these years to come to this,’’ Darisse said. “I’m grateful that we finally got to this point.’’

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.