By Linda Kor
For some victims of domestic violence there is one moment, that final moment, when they realize they’ve waited too long to remove themselves from a bad situation. For Vanessa Powers that moment came on Nov. 20, 2010, when the man she loved, a man who could be charming, loving and sometimes violent, brutally beat her beyond recognition and changed her life forever.
“I knew I was going to die,” said Powers as she recalled the events of that night. “I was beaten, strangled, my face stomped on. When I cried out to him asking why he was doing this, he told me it was my fault.”
The incident began when the 27-year-old Winslow woman and her boyfriend, Cameron Head, along with family and friends were enjoying an evening out at a local restaurant. As the evening progressed Powers saw that Head was drinking too much and becoming unruly, so she refused to buy him any more drinks. In response Head became verbally abusive with Powers, took her keys and money from her, then told her to go home.
A family member gave Powers a ride to her home in Coopertown after the incident at about 11 p.m., but she realized she had no way to gain access to her home and she didn’t have a phone. As she stood outside in the cold night air she saw a vehicle round the corner without its headlights on. As it pulled up in front of Powers, Head, who is over 6’ tall and weighs 250 pounds, jumped from the back seat and charged at her, taking her down onto the dirt and gravel. What ensued after that was 15 minutes of brutality that left Powers hospitalized for five days. Her injuries were numerous, including a broken nose, a gash across the bridge of her nose that required 15 stitches, the loss of two front teeth, broken ribs and fingers, cervical damage to her spine and two blood clots to her face, the result of being stomped with boots, leaving permanent damage to her vision.
Two years later Powers’ injuries are still healing. She relies on medication to control the pain in her back and to control her anxiety. There is still evidence of the brutality she suffered in the scar on her face, the re-placement teeth and the corrective lenses she must now always wear. She suffers from depression that re-quires her to see a psychologist and a counselor. She has a fear of going out in public, knowing that Head’s family and friends are watching her, blaming her for what happened that night.
Despite all that has taken place, Powers is working hard to empower herself and face the future in a positive light. She works as an administrative assistant at Alice’s Place in Winslow, assisting other victims of domestic violence and telling them her story. She carries a notebook with her containing photographs taken of her at the hospital. Her blackened eyes and swollen face telling more than words could say. “When a woman who is a victim can’t decide if she should leave her abuser or stay, I pull out my notebook. I let them know that this could be them next time. I don’t hold back on what happened to me,” said Powers.
In the two years since that incident, Powers has had another struggle to overcome, one that she hopes that other victims won’t be subjected to. The violent assault on Powers ended when Winslow police officers responded to a neighbor’s 911 call and found Head strangling Powers on her bed, a knife he had taken from the kitchen imbedded in the wall above her head. The officers arrested Head and charged him with kidnapping, attempted second-degree murder and six counts of aggravated assault/domestic violence, and booked him into the Navajo County Jail.
By the time Head was convicted in Navajo County Superior Court two years later, those charges were reduced to just one count of aggravated assault/domestic violence in addition to a charge of attempted unlawful flight from a law enforcement officer related to a prior incident. The end result was a total sentence of 2.5 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections, with 27 months of that sentence already served in the county jail.
“I feel cheated,” said Powers. “He’s spent just over two years in the county jail and will be out in three months. I haven’t even recovered from what happened. How could I? I wanted the maximum sentence or at least five years. That would have allowed me time to move on,” she added.
Powers feels she has been revictimized by a legal system that categorizes crimes according to where they fall in a sentencing matrix, not according to the severity of the crime. She also feels that Deputy County At-torney Jonathan Apirian did not represent her best interests. “I believe the prosecution in my case was both negligent and lazy. Time after time I was the one doing their leg work and gathering information,” wrote Powers in a statement to the court.
The sentencing guidelines used by Apirion were implemented in the 1980s when it was determined that the broad spectrum of outcomes for similar crimes resulted in too many inconsistencies. Judges that were deemed too lenient were sought out by defense attorneys, while judges who issued harsher punishments were sought by the prosecution. With the current system each blow, no matter how many or severe, is considered one act placed on a matrix and given class number. That number has a scale of punishment and that scale does not assess a victim’s suffering but rather the criminal’s past behavior.
Although Head has a lengthy criminal history, including an incident very similar to this one in which he repeatedly strangled and bit a former girlfriend in Oregon, each of those incidents resulted in misdemeanor charges, so there were no prior felony convictions that would change the classification or increase the sentence in this case.
The final plea agreement that was accepted in July of this year by Apirion was identical to one rejected a year earlier with the exception that the word “attempted” was removed from the aggravated assault/domestic violence charge and added to the charge of unlawful flight from a law enforcement officer. Even though the presumptive sentence for an aggravated assault/domestic violence charge is 3.5 years according to the sentencing chart, the sentence of 2.5 years was left unchanged.
“When the first plea agreement was declined I prepared to go to trial because that was what I was told would take place. The next thing I know, the prosecution accepts a new plea agreement even though I don’t agree with it,” said Powers.
Ironically, the sudden change in course for the case came when the defense attorneys told the court they were going to seek a mistrial because their client’s rights were being violated as he was being denied a speedy trial.
It was noted by Powers that the initial plea agreement was denied by Superior Court Judge Ralph Hatch as being unacceptable due to the brutality of the crimes committed. The second plea agreement was accepted by Judge Robert Higgins due to his concern regarding a mistrial.
Although disappointed with how the prosecuting attorney handled the case and its eventual outcome, Powers has accepted what she knows cannot be changed. Her concern now is that other victims may be revictimized as she was. In a letter addressed to the court at sentencing Powers stated, “He’s been given a slap on the wrist and I’ve been given a life sentence. I have not been the first girl he’s victimized and with this out-come, I know I won’t be the last.”
Despite what she’s endured, Powers feels promise for the future and hopes to help others who have been victimized to move forward as well. She knows her journey will be long and that with Head’s release in January a new fear will come, but she is determined to stand her ground and remain in Winslow. “I’m not going to run from him, from this. I’m not going to let him win,” she said.
Powers hopes that the methods for prosecuting violent offenders can be changed to help vindicate victims of domestic violence who are looking for closure and time to heal.
“I understand that he has rights, but victims have rights also. In the end I became just another case number and I don’t feel justice was served; not for me or his next victim,” she said.
Powers has not let the matter end with Head’s sentence. She has filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General’s Office in hopes that action will be taken to prevent this outcome for victims in the future.
By Linda Kor