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Appellate court reverses man’s conviction in domestic abuse case

A West Side man convicted by a jury of beating and choking his pregnant girlfriend while holding her captive for three days has won a new trial because of how the police entered and searched his apartment when looking for the woman.

The police went into Eli E. Casillas’ West Avenue apartment without a warrant in December 2011.

When police found his girlfriend, who was nine months pregnant, she had bruising, swelling, welts, a black eye and dried blood in her mouth, according to Buffalo police reports. Police said Casillas beat her with a metal broom, stomped on her stomach and choked her.

When the jury later convicted Casillas, former District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III publicly said “such savage acts of domestic violence cannot be tolerated in a civil society and will continue to be aggressively prosecuted by this office.”

But the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court recently reversed the conviction, ruling that the trial judge, State Supreme Court Justice Deborah Haendiges, should have suppressed Casillas’ statements and the property seized by the police following their warrantless entry into his apartment.

The jury had found Casillas, now 32, guilty of strangulation and assault.

The trial court record indicated that Casillas and the woman “may have been previously involved in domestic disputes,” the appellate court ruled. But the police officers responding to the call testified they did not have “direct, personal knowledge of any previous domestic violence or any indication that defendant and the victim were engaged is a domestic dispute at the time they arrived.”

During a suppression hearing after his arrest, prosecutors contended an “emergency exception” justified the warrantless entry.

The appellate judges disagreed.

“To the contrary, based on our review of the record, we conclude that “the evidence at the suppression hearing did not establish that the police had reasonable grounds to believe that there was an emergency at hand and an immediate need for their assistance for the protection of life or property,” the appellate court ruled.

Prosecutors did not present any evidence that the police observed anything unusual once they arrived at the defendant’s apartment, the appellate court said.

“The police officers testified only that they knew that the defendant was inside the apartment but would not answer the door,” the appellate court said in its decision.

While allowing evidence from the warrantless entry was enough to reverse the verdict, the appellate court also faulted Haendiges for denying Casillas’ challenges to five prospective jurors.

“The record establishes that five out of the six prospective jurors clearly expressed concerns that not hearing from defendant or someone on behalf of defendant would affect their ability to be fair and impartial,” the appellate court said.

The judge asked the jury panel whether anyone had “a problem sitting as a fair and impartial juror in this case?”

But the five prospective jurors at issue remained silent, according to the appellate decision.

“In our view, the statements of the five prospective jurors cast serious doubt on their ability to render an impartial verdict,” according to the appellate decision.

The appellate judges said they agreed with the defendant that the court erred in denying his challenges for cause to the five prospective jurors because the court failed to obtain unequivocal assurances of impartiality from each juror.

An advocate for domestic violence victims called the case a prime example of society failing to respond to signals of domestic abuse.

“We as a society need to do a better job,” said Mary Traverse Murphy, executive director of the Family Justice Center, an organization that provides support for victims of domestic violence. “By the time it gets to this point – where the victim was beaten, strangled and held hostage for three days – there is a history of abuse. Strangulation is a red flag that situations can turn lethal very quickly.”

What’s more, a pregnant woman is at a higher risk of physical harm by her abuser, Murphy said.

Reports published at the time of the incident indicated the woman was taken by ambulance to Women & Children’s Hospital.

The woman was reported to have told police the unborn baby seemed “less active” than normal, although the extent of her unborn child’s injuries was unclear.

Sharon Morgan, an advocate for victims and herself a survivor of domestic abuse, said case studies show the risk of homicide linked to domestic violence increases 75 percent when the victim leaves the person who is abusive.

“It’s about power and control,” said Morgan, who is on the staff of the Family Justice Center.

Morgan said the abuser will do almost anything to keep hold of the victim – even threatening suicide.

“It’s a maneuver to keep you there,” said Morgan, who spoke from experience.

“Then they’ll do one of two things: enter into the honeymoon phase and lure you back with kindness. They’re not monsters all the time,” Morgan explained. “They can be kind, caring and warm people.

“Or they will continue the violence and keep you with them. Women sometimes stay with their abuser, figuring it’s better if they at least know where he is.”

Murphy said that women in the midst of an abusive relationship in most cases do not recognize they are victims of domestic abuse.

“They’ve been brainwashed to believe that any beating is their fault, and that they deserve it,” Murphy said. “A trained, experienced domestic violence advocate can provide safety planning, court advocacy and case management – where the advocate is talking to police and prosecutors.”