Viewing a Tragic Case Through the Eyes of Investigators

Ellen Barry, a national reporter for The New York Times, spent months retracing a domestic violence prosecution in Maine.,

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As a national reporter, I usually start my day skimming half a dozen regional newspapers, looking for local news stories that might deserve a closer look. I was doing that in September 2020 when I came across an item on Seacoast Online, from New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Herald, that puzzled me.

A man in Kittery, Maine, named Nelson Dion had pleaded guilty to federal charges of crossing state lines to violate a protection order. His former partner, Tanya Neal, was not around to see this outcome; tragically, she had jumped to her death from the Piscataqua River Bridge in 2016.

Violating a protection order is a relatively low-level domestic violence offense, rarely meriting 700 words in the newspaper. In this case, though, the government had stuck with the investigation for five years, involving officers from four departments in New Hampshire and Maine as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Not only that — the F.B.I. agent on the case was Tommy MacDonald, who had served on the task force that hunted down James (Whitey) Bulger, the Boston mob boss. To get Mr. Dion to confess to violating the protection order, Mr. MacDonald had set up a sting operation, including special agents wearing button cameras.

Why, I wondered, was the government going to such lengths to prosecute a relatively low-level domestic violence case?

It took me more than six months to begin to understand the answer.

In April, I was finally able to interview Ryan Sanford, the police detective who had pulled over Ms. Neal in 2016 for a traffic violation. We spoke for two hours and 28 minutes. By the time I left, I had a better sense of the difficult decisions law enforcement officers face when they weigh how to act on allegations of abuse.

It had all started with that traffic stop. When Ms. Neal told Officer Sanford that she was trying to get away from her partner, he took immediate action, moving her to a shelter for victims of domestic violence and gathering enough information for the police to arrest Mr. Dion on assault charges the next day. When Officer Sanford dropped her off that night, he was satisfied that he had done everything he could to keep her safe.

But seven weeks later, he was called to the scene of her suicide, and it became clear that all the steps he had taken had come undone. Mr. Dion had been released on bail and resumed contact with Ms. Neal, breaching a court order. After that, she left the shelter and began showing up to work with fresh injuries. The police suspected that the two were back in contact, in violation of Mr. Dion’s bail conditions, but since the authorities never spotted them together, they took no action.

Then Ms. Neal jumped to her death. Her testimony had been central to the prosecution of the assault case, so that charge was dismissed. The charge of violating a protection order — a federal charge, since it occurred across state lines — was the only one left to act on.

When I began to talk about this case with the police and prosecutors — a constellation of them, in New Hampshire and Maine — their broader frustration with domestic violence cases poured out.

They said that restraining orders are violated casually and difficult to enforce; that rules about evidence mean courts hear only a fraction of a case history; that juries still get stuck on why a victim would return to a dangerous situation. “I truly feel like we’re putting Band-Aids on bullet holes,” Shira Burns, an assistant district attorney in York County, said.

It is rare for me to hear the police openly criticizing the criminal justice system, and I was struck by the depth of their emotion. My purpose in writing the story was to capture that. In my experience, when insiders begin to tell you about the flaws in their own systems, it’s worth paying attention.

When I sat down to write, I had more than 100 pages of notes and many hours of recorded interviews. I had to set aside much of that research. I was not unpacking the question of why Ms. Neal was in a dangerous situation or why she returned to it. And I was not driving home a single lesson about how domestic violence is prosecuted.

I had the opportunity to tell one story, and I chose the one that had interested me from the beginning — of the people who had tried to intervene in her life, why they weren’t able to and why they never let her case go.

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