Choosing sides

The race for judge in Dallas' domestic-violence court raises questions of bias

The case of Texas vs. Joel Pruitt was depressingly typical among those in Judge Marshall Gandy's court. In the latest of a string of violent episodes, Jeanie Pruitt had accused her husband of knocking her across a room with one punch.

But the outcome would be anything but typical. In the end, Gandy would take extraordinary steps to break the cycle of abuse that had trapped Jeanie Pruitt for the seven years of her marriage. It would be an unusual move by the judge who has overseen Dallas County's innovative domestic-violence court for more than two years. It also would be the sort of decision that some say explains why Gandy has drawn his first re-election opponent.

Joel Pruitt and his wife, Jeanie, shared a textbook history of domestic violence: black eyes, broken bones, and broken promises. Joel already had served three years' probation for pulling a gun on his older sister. He had spent time in jail for two misdemeanor assaults against his wife, and another two cases were pending. Once, in a fit of rage, Jeanie says, he pushed her from a speeding car.

The Pruitts and their four children lived in a six-bedroom home appraised at $630,000, full of expensive antiques and opulent cut glass. Courtesy of the family-owned business started by Joel's grandfather, Ken Pruitt Buick in Garland, Jeanie Pruitt stepped out in $900 Armani suits, sported a 7-carat diamond wedding ring, and braced herself against the wind in mink coats.

"Sometimes people draw their own conclusions of what a battered woman is," she says. "They may think she's poor, or she's on welfare, or she's a drug addict or lives in the slums--a stereotypical view. It can happen in all walks of life. Even millionaires abuse their families."

The violent history of Jeanie and Joel Pruitt's marriage is captured in her collection of 35 police reports and a set of 50 broken telephones that Pruitt had pulled from the wall trying to stop her from calling the police. Pruitt often would take his money after their fights and disappear, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves.

"Then Joel would come back, give me a couple of grand, and watch a movie with the kids, and I'd think, 'Well, OK. It's easier this way. At least we can eat.' And I would sign the affidavit to drop the charges. I was very much in that battered women's syndrome."

Eventually, Jeanie Pruitt's concern for her children prompted her to join a counseling session at the Genesis Women's Outreach. By March 8, 1996, she summoned the courage to consult a divorce attorney and that evening, did something that was unusual for her--left the children with their live-in nanny and went out with friends, without her husband and without his permission.

Joel Pruitt was waiting when she arrived home.
"He yelled at me," she says. "I came in, and I said very adamantly, 'I left you a note where I was. Don't bother me.'

"Joel had this habit of coming up to me and spitting on me whenever he felt like degrading me," she says. "That night he came up and spit right in my face. I just put my hands on his chest. I would take a slap or a spit before hitting him back."

She pushed him away, and the yelling and name-calling escalated. Pruitt silenced the noise with his fist, giving his wife a concussion and a cracked tailbone.

"He took his hand way, way back, wadded his fist up, and the next thing I knew, I'm shaking my head over by the other door in the room," she says. "Joel had literally punched my lights out. I flew across the room."

Gandy, who presides over the first Texas court devoted solely to domestic violence cases, sentenced Pruitt to a one-year jail term after a jury convicted him on a misdemeanor assault charge in February 1997. But because of overcrowding, inmates were receiving three days' credit against their sentence for every day they served. In four months, Pruitt would be free to return home.

It was then that Gandy decided to intervene. Midway through Pruitt's sentence, Jeanie Pruitt received a call from Gandy and prosecutor Christine Swain.

"'I'm going to pull Mr. Pruitt out,'" Jeanie Pruitt says Gandy told her. "'I'm going to place him on a two-year electronic monitoring probation, house-arrest curfew, no contact clause. I'm going to make it mandatory that he attends 24 weeks of family-violence counseling. I'm going to make him do 300 hours of community service picking up trash.'"

Gandy's decision to effectively resentence a wife-beater is the sort of move that has made him a favorite of victims' advocates during the more than two years he has presided over the county's domestic-violence docket. But it's also the sort of decision guaranteed to win him few friends among the county's defense lawyers, some of whom say Gandy has lost his judicial objectivity in his zeal to protect the victims of domestic abuse.

And that, as much as anything, may explain why the Republican primary pitting Gandy against challenger David Finn has become the race to watch in this month's elections. (No Democrat is running for Gandy's seat, so the winner in the GOP primary won't face an opponent in November.)

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