An emotional legislative campaign fueled by the battered face of Nicole Brown Simpson concluded Thursday when Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill that repeals the program under which first-time wife beaters can escape criminal prosecution by agreeing to undergo counseling.
No longer, Wilson said, will those accused of domestic violence get "one on the house" on the theory that therapy will change their behavior. The diversion process, instituted in 1979, allowed admitted batterers to emerge without a criminal record as long as they completed counseling sessions.
The new law, effective Jan. 1, will also require batterers to receive therapy, but the counseling could not be used to wipe away a guilty plea or criminal conviction.
Diversion to counseling was the procedure O.J. Simpson's lawyers had requested in 1989 when he was accused of beating his then-wife Nicole Brown Simpson. But a judge rejected their request, and Simpson pleaded no contest and was placed on probation.
If Simpson had been diverted through the counseling program, there would have been no court record of a Simpson assault on his wife, said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who sponsored the legislation.
Hayden said the O.J. Simpson double murder trial, and the vivid photos of victim Nicole Brown Simpson, were motivating factors in winning passage of the law.
And he added that forcing first-time batterers to be held responsible for their crime can save lives, "as we all know."
Previous incidents of domestic violence in the Simpson home played an important role in the prosecution's case against Simpson, who was acquitted Tuesday of killing his ex-wife and a friend.
Hayden said the TV broadcasts of Nicole Simpson's 911 emergency telephone calls and photos showing her bruised and battered face gave a boost to his campaign to get the new law through the California Legislature.
"If it takes that to wake us up, so be it," Hayden said. "Let this be a moment of commemoration not only for her, but for all of the thousands and thousands who have suffered."
Beginning Jan. 1, anyone arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic abuse must face the charge in court. Wilson said the old law treated a first case of domestic violence as a "family matter," and failed to recognize that many victims have been beaten repeatedly before bringing charges.
"It is time that we recognize it for what it is: a crime of great seriousness," Wilson said at a ceremony in his 16th-floor office of the Ronald Reagan State Building in Downtown Los Angeles. "It is serious when you beat someone, particularly when you beat someone you are supposed to love. There is something terribly wrong."
Wilson was joined in the ceremony by Hayden, City Atty. James Hahn, Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Gordon, and Patty King, a survivor of domestic violence who runs a shelter for battered women called the Angel Step Inn. A number of shelter residents were arrayed behind them--all wearing purple lapel ribbons signifying unity with beating victims.
Hayden said the legislation ran into curious and unforeseen pockets of resistance as it wended its way through the long legislative process, even though it won final passage in the Senate and Assembly by large margins.
"This is probably as argumentative and as difficult a bill as I have ever worked on," Hayden said. "There were hundreds of conversations, small and large, about whether or not this deserves to be treated in a tougher manner.
"The chief resistance was around the idea that we ought not to be tough on perpetrators of domestic violence the first time because it will cause problems for them in their family and their work."
Beyond that was the fact that many felt this was a different sort of crime because it occurred in the home, he said. To these opponents, "it's classified, I guess, as an outburst of temper or rage that will pass and should not be treated as if somebody was striking somebody on the street or in a store," he said.
The officials said the 1979 diversion law was patterned after programs created by the courts for first-time drug offenders. The theory was that young people should not be punished and saddled with a criminal record for experimenting once with an illegal drug, and that an effective counseling program would deter them from continuing drug use.
But there is a major difference, Wilson noted: Domestic violence is not a victimless crime. Wilson also called for the creation of education programs for children in homes marked by domestic violence. Boys, in particular, should not be allowed to grow up thinking it is acceptable to beat women, Wilson said. And girls must be taught that they should not accept being victimized by a boyfriend or husband.
The new law is important, Wilson added, because male batterers too often are "in a state of denial" that they have done wrong. The diversion program tended to reinforce that belief, he said. Hayden equated it to "a free pass" to commit battery again.
The new law creates a criminal record that batterers cannot escape, Wilson said.
"They are forced to actually admit that they have done this thing," Wilson said. "They are entering guilty pleas and they are going into counseling. If they fail, they will be in violation of probation and go back to court."
Several of the officials present said that under the old law, judges tended to put first-time offenders into diversion programs because it concluded a case and "moved paper" from their desks. When a defendant went into such a program, the charge was formally dismissed and the record expunged.
If the defendant failed to complete the counseling satisfactorily, law enforcement officials would have to file new charges in Municipal Court, the officials said.
A background paper issued by Hayden's office said that nearly 240,000 cases of domestic abuse were reported to the state Department of Justice in 1993.
"It is one of the most severe and pervasive problems in our society and until we end the consistent denial of its existence, we will be unable to end the abuse," the paper said.
The Hayden bill, SB 169, was one of three measures signed into law by Wilson dealing with domestic violence. The others were:
* AB 1937 by Assemblywoman Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), prohibiting insurance companies from denying or restricting coverage for victims of domestic abuse.
* SB 924 by Sen. Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland), extending from one to three years the period in which victims can file civil suits in abuse cases.