An ongoing police audit of Nashville's domestic violence court records has uncovered at least 87 cases in which the suspects were released within four hours of their arrest.
In 24 of those cases, a night court commissioner said the suspects were a threat to their victims but cleared their release from jail anyway.
State law in Tennessee dictates that suspects in a domestic assault case "shall not be released" within 12 hours of their arrest if the commissioner or judge finds that the suspect is a threat to the alleged victim. Commissioners are allowed to waive that limit if they determine that "sufficient time has or will have elapsed for the victim to be protected."
Computer analysts with the Metro Nashville Police Department began scouring court records in the wake of the controversial case of David A. Chase, a prominent developer who is accused of attacking his ex-girlfriend twice on the morning of June 8.
Chase was first arrested after, police said, he dragged his ex-girlfriend out of his apartment by her hair. A night court commissioner agreed that he was a threat to her safety, but General Sessions Judge Casey Moreland cleared Chase's release after about three hours in jail.
Chase went to his apartment where Lauren Aletia Bull was packing her belongings. Police say he attacked her again, choking her until she passed out.
After he was arrested for a second time, a different night court commissioner cleared his early release again, despite acknowledging Chase posed a threat.
New rules drafted
The waivers applied in the Chase case triggered a wave of criticism from city and state leaders.
Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson pledged to help the general sessions judges draft new rules for the application of waivers and vowed to audit judicial decisions in domestic violence cases. The review is still underway.
The 87 cases uncovered so far stretch from 2009 to June, according to police spokesman Don Aaron. All of the suspects were arrested within 48 hours of the incidents.
In 12 of the 87 cases, suspects were released from jail without a commissioner's waiver. Aaron said it appears "clerical errors" led to those releases.
A citywide study on the handling of domestic violence cases last year criticized commissioners for issuing too many waivers. The Metro report found that commissioners chose not to hold suspects for 12 hours in more than 40 percent of cases in one stretch during October 2012.
An analysis by The Tennessean found that at least 32 waivers, including two for Chase, were applied to domestic violence suspects between May 1 and June 18. That accounted for about 3 percent of the domestic violence orders issued in that period.
In eight of those cases, the suspect was deemed a threat to the victim.
The 12-hour period is designed to give victims time to find shelter and allow suspects to cool off during an especially dangerous time frame.
2 victims, 1 night
Marquetta Simpson is reminded of that danger every time her eyes fall on the trail of scars on her neck, arms and hands.
Her husband, Donnell Simpson, was arrested on March 11 after, police said, he slammed a brick through her car window. It wasn't his first domestic assault charge. He was found guilty of slapping her in the face in 2008 and of choking a girlfriend in 2004.
On March 11, a commissioner deemed him a threat to his wife but waived his cooling-off period, clearing his release from jail in less than four hours.
Police say Donnell Simpson went from jail to his brother's house, where he stabbed his sister-in-law. Then, he headed for the Forest Breeze Drive home he shared with his wife.
He walked past the man who was changing the locks and slashed Marquetta with a box cutter.
Marquetta remembers her husband's grave warning: "You about to die."
In an interview last week, Marquetta Simpson said she felt connected to Bull because of the similarities in their cases.
"It just wasn't fair that victims have to be caught off guard. We were not given a level playing field to protect ourselves," she said. "She was in the process of getting her things. I was in the process of changing the locks."
Warner Hassell, administrator of the Davidson County General Sessions courts, said law and court rulings do not set out specific guidelines for waivers. Instead, the Night Court commissioners must examine the facts in each case.
"Under current law, the issue is fact-specific to each and every case on its own merits," Hassell wrote in an email. "No case is the same."
Commissioners are required by law to participate in at least 12 hours of annual training administered by the Judicial Commissioner Association of Tennessee. Two of those hours must pivot around domestic violence, including rules surrounding the cooling off period.
Retired Judge Peter Macdonald, who served on the bench for decades in Kentucky and has trained judges across the country on issues of domestic violence, said that doesn't cut it. Macdonald equated issues of domestic violence to a foreign language that must be studied consistently.
"I don't believe Tennessee judges get enough training on domestic violence," he said. "To me there should be ongoing and continuous training on domestic violence. … If you don't keep up with this, you're clueless."
Macdonald said he's never understood why a commissioner or judge would waive a 12-hour hold. (In Kentucky, they're 24 hours.)
"It's inconsistent to find that someone presents a danger to someone and then waive a mandatory hold," Macdonald said. "I think best practice would be don't waive it. What is 12 hours?"
Middle Tennessee lawmakers have said they plan to introduce a bill next year that would require people arrested for domestic violence to remain in jail at least 12 hours. Marquetta Simpson hopes they keep suspects like her husband Chase in mind.
"Luckily for me and luckily for the young lady in the Chase case we're able to have lived through our ordeal," she said. "Every victim is not as fortunate."
Staff writer Anita Wadhwani contributed to this report.
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 or on Twitter @tamburintweets.
Preliminary findings from the police department's audit
• 87 domestic cases where the suspect was released within four hours of his or her arrest
• In each of those cases, the suspect was arrested within 48 hours of the incident
• 24 of those suspects were deemed threats to their victims
• 12 suspects were released from jail without a commissioner's waiver
Source: Metro police