Murder case shows system’s hurdles for victims of domestic violence

SHARE Murder case shows system’s hurdles for victims of domestic violence

Veardena Pryor with a quilt honoring her slain daughter, Shaquita Bennett. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Shaquita Bennett sought her first order of protection against her ex-boyfriend, Deshawn Johnson, in 2013, just months after the two had broken up.

On top of that, she’d filed 10 reports with Chicago Police Department accusing Johnson of harassment, domestic violence and other alleged crimes, police and court records show.

All that apparently wasn’t enough.

Bennett, 31, was shot to death last month in the hallway outside her South Shore apartment.

Now, Johnson, 33, is charged with her murder.

“I don’t know what else she was supposed to do,” her mother, Veardena Pryor, said. “He made her life a living hell, and then he killed her.”

Even the judge who ordered Johnson held without bail lamented that the victim seemed to do “everything right” when it came to alerting authorities of the threats against her. Johnson, who has not yet entered a plea in Bennett’s murder case, is being held at Cook County Jail.

“The victim did everything right in this case … to try to protect herself,” Judge Mary Marubio said during Johnson’s May 3rd court appearance.

But that is of little comfort to Bennett’s family, who believe not enough was done in light of the harassment, stalking and threats that Bennett endured.

“Police officers — the detectives — told me, ‘the system has failed your child,’” Bennett’s mother said. “This guy did everything he was told not to do. . . . He said what he was going to do. Nothing happened to him.”

A complicated, exhausting process

A Chicago Sun-Times review of police and court documents filed by Bennett underscores the difficulties victims face in protecting themselves — from navigating domestic violence court to making sure information about harassment and abuse gets into the right hands.

Shortly before he allegedly murdered Bennett, Johnson had been convicted of violating an order of protection, served five days in jail then continued to harass her while on probation. Bennett’s family says she told authorities about his repeated contacts with her while he was released on bond. Law-enforcement officials say she didn’t.

Shaquita Bennett | Photo provided

Shaquita Bennett | Photo provided

The sad reality to be drawn from Bennett’s plight appears to be this: While protection orders can deter abusers and provide police with a tool to enforce protection for victims, they can do little to stop a person whose intent is violence, said Kathy Doherty, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network.

“Research shows abuser’s threats need to be taken seriously, because they do follow through,” Doherty said. Not-for-profit organizations like Doherty’s, along with police and the courts, are constantly assessing ways to better protect victims, but Bennett’s case shows just how uphill a battle that can be.

A domestic abuse hotline run by the Network gets about 25,000 calls per year, Doherty said. Most orders of protection are filed in civil court, and so callers are often asking about how to obtain low-cost legal assistance.

Melanie MacBride, supervising attorney of another victims’ advocacy group — Metropolitan Family Services’ Domestic Violence Team — said victims are required to be their own advocates. In addition to filing police reports, they are expected to follow up with prosecutors and attend hearings, which can be difficult for victims of limited means.

“It’s a complicated process, and an inherently exhausting one for clients,” MacBride said.

Bennett’s orders of protection

When Bennett sought her second order of protection against Johnson in July 2016, she wrote in the petition: “I’m very scared … I haven’t been home [in four days] because of him sitting around my house,” according to court filings.

Deshawn Johnson | Chicago Police

Deshawn Johnson | Chicago Police

The order of protection granted two months later barred Johnson from having any contact with Bennett for two years, court records show.

On Dec. 14, 2017, Johnson violated the order when he left her a voicemail message threatening to “blow her brains out,” prosecutors said. Bennett reported the threat to Chicago police, who arrested Johnson the next month. Johnson was initially held on $10,000 bail, but he was released when the amount was reduced to $5,000, according to court records.

The threats didn’t stop even as the case wound through court; Johnson left Bennett more than 30 threatening voicemail messages during that time, prosecutors said. In four, he threatened to kill her.

In addition to the ongoing protection order, Johnson was told he couldn’t contact Bennett as a condition of his release on bond. Despite that, he went to the Walgreens where she worked around 1 a.m. on March 5, police and prosecutors said.

Bennett filed a police report at 11 a.m. that same day, likely waiting for her shift to end, her family said. Had she filed the report when it happened and if Johnson was still there, officers would have been required to arrest him, CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. “In this case, there was no offender on the scene [and] the report was made over the phone,” Guglielmi said.

In such situations, victims are given instructions on how to obtain an arrest warrant and telephone numbers for additional resources, he said.

Bennett never told prosecutors about the continued harassment — or about Johnson showing up at her work, according to Robert Foley, a spokesman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Prosecutors learned of both only when detectives investigated her murder.

Her family says she did.

Johnson pleaded guilty to the December 2017 order of protection violation on March 13 and was sentenced to five days in jail and a year of probation along with domestic-violence counseling, according to court records.

Johnnie Pryor, Veardena Pryor and Shirita Pryor all are troubled by the events that happened before their family member, Shaquita Bennett, was murdered. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Johnnie Pryor, Veardena Pryor and Shirita Pryor all are troubled by the events that happened before their family member, Shaquita Bennett, was murdered. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Bennett felt defeated when the sentence was handed down, her sister Shirita Pryor said. Her family says Bennett asked that Johnson be put on electronic monitoring while he was on probation.

The state’s attorney’s office has no record of the request, though it could have been an option under state sentencing guidelines, Foley said.

Only four days later, Johnson violated the protection order again when he called Bennett and threatened to go to her work and “go crazy,” prosecutors said.

But police say Bennett never reported the call.

If she had, Foley said, Johnson would have been eligible for a felony charge for violating the order a second time.

‘She had to keep moving’

Bennett moved to South Shore in January, her family said. It was the third time she had relocated in hope of keeping Johnson from knowing where she lived. Each time he found her.

“She had to keep moving, she didn’t feel like she could stay anywhere and be safe,” her sister said. “She didn’t know anybody there.”

Bennett was also planning a temporarily move to Indiana to complete her training for a commercial driver’s license. Just before her death, she told her family she was concerned that Johnson was following her home from work.

On the morning of April 5, Bennett returned to her home after working a night shift, prosecutors said. Surveillance cameras at her building recorded a man identified as Johnson pulling an object from his waist as he approached her at the rear of the four-story yellow brick building.

Together, they walked into the lobby and up the stairs to the second floor. She put her coat inside her apartment and walked back out into the hall, prosecutors said. She was found dead of a gunshot wound to her head 40 feet from her door.

While not assigning blame for Bennett’s death to any one person, Doherty, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, understands Bennett’s family’s frustrations.

“You see all of these big, red flags,” Doherty said. “You look at that and go, ‘Was anyone paying attention here?’”

For their part, not-for-profit groups, the courts and the cops all offer ways to try to help domestic violence victims.

Help is available at Cook County’s Domestic Violence Courthouse at 555 W. Harrison St., said MacBride, of the Metropolitan Family Services’ Domestic Violence Team.

Metropolitan’s Safe Families Program works with the state’s attorney’s office to provide victims legal support on criminal cases, and victims can get free assistance with civil matters, like orders of protection, at the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic. Court advocates can also walk clients through both the legal processes and make referrals to other supportive services.

“The involvement of more people, particularly advocates who can take time with clients and get the full picture, helps identify victims at risk of serious injury, which is not always easy to identify or predict,” MacBride said.

Chicago police are also looking for new ways to connect victims with help.

Under a new Domestic Violence Assessment Pilot Program currently being tested in three of the city’s police districts, reports generated by officers are sent to the state’s attorney’s office and also passed along to social service agencies if the victim consents to having their information shared.

All of that, however, is of little solace to Bennett’s mother, who believes the system still could have done more to help her daughter.

“It just hurts at this point,” Veardena Pryor said. “She’s gone, and I’m never going to see her again.”

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