Virginia passes legislation submitted in honor of slain WC student

Read Molly Gentzel’s article in The Collegian on Del. McCellan’s legislation submitted in honor of slain University of Richmond student De’Nora Hill who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend.  The bill increases the penalty for stalking in Virginia.

In December 2005, senior De’Nora Hill was shot and killed outside of her off-campus apartment by her ex-boyfriend Joe Casuccio, said Holly Blake, director of Women in Living and Learning (WILL).

Hill had issued a preliminary protective hearing against 30-year-old Casuccio because she had become frightened by his recent behavior, which included repeated telephone calls, sudden outbursts of anger and following Hill when she drove, according to information published in Richmond Magazine after the incident.

After a weekend of relative normalcy, Hill was shot eight times in the parking lot of her apartment and later died at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.

Casuccio, who suffered from mental illness, then took his own life with a gunshot to the head.

Following Hill’s death during the 2006-2007 school year, WILL students who were taking a course titled Gender, Race and Activism were given an article to read about Hill and the events surrounding her death, Blake said. The students were moved and motivated to look further into stalking laws in Va.

The students were shocked by how stalking was regarded in the law, Blake said, which at the time made stalking a Class 1 misdemeanor with a penalty of no more than one year in jail and a fine of no more than $2,500.

Brianna May, a WILL alumna who was one of the students originally involved in creating the legislation, said she had felt “deeply disturbed” that so little action had been taken to protect Hill.

May and her classmates decided to confront this issue as the topic of a class project in which they were to research and take action on an issue they were interested in, Blake said.

WILL students worked with members of the General Assembly and the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance to find a legislator to sponsor the bill. That legislator was Del. Katherine Waddell, Blake said.

In the spring of 2007, nine WILL students testified with Hill’s mother on behalf of legislation that would have made stalking a Class 6 felony upon a second offense within five years or when there was a court order in effect that prohibited contact between the stalker and the victim, as Hill had had against Casuccio. According to Va. law, a Class 6 felony carries a jail sentence of one to five years.

On Feb. 6, 2007, Blake said, the legislation passed the House, but failed to pass out of the Senate’s finance committee.

That first year was a disheartening experience, May said, for the students who had worked on honoring Hill and had become passionate about the connection between stalking and domestic violence.

“I don’t think the legislators understood,” May said. “They were very far removed from the terror, the violence and the tragedy … walking in and out of the room and answering phones while people were presenting their ideas for a better Virginia.”

The following year, Waddell lost her re-election bid, and Del. McClellan, a class of 1994 graduate, took up the legislation as chief patron, Blake said. McClellan said she had become interested in working on this legislation after she had sat down and spoken with some of Hill’s friends.

“They wanted to do something to not make her death completely meaningless,” McClellan said.

McClellan submitted legislation in 2008 that would have provided the same penalties for stalking as Waddell’s 2007 legislation. The bill failed again, this time in the House public safety subcommittee.

Despite the legislation having failed twice, Blake said WILL students had retained their fervent commitment to issues of sexual assault and domestic violence. To continue their work, WILL students put together a week-long series of programs that included four speakers, among them a Harvard law professor, who challenged students to re-think their conceptions about domestic violence, Blake said.

As a result of collaboration between WILL members, the athletics department staff, fraternities, and the Richmond College dean’s office staff, more men attended these events than women for the first time in WILL history, Blake said.

The motivation to increase stalking penalties and to honor Hill spread among the campus community, and the project grew beyond a class assignment, Blake said.

McClellan said she had remained committed to the legislation after the bill was killed in 2008 because of the high and ever-rising domestic violence statistics.

“The numbers of people who are killed by people who claim to love them are staggering,” McClellan said. “Stalking usually leads to more violent behavior.” In the U.S., one in six women and one in 19 men has been a victim of stalking in his or her lifetime, according to staff at the Center for Disease Control. Two-thirds of female stalking victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner.

Stalking can take on many different forms, Blake said, including incessant text messages or phone calls, being followed or watched. Blake said all of these things had happened on Richmond’s campus.

Becky Bieschke, Hill’s mother, said the bill’s repeated failure every year since 2008 had been mostly due to fiscal concerns.

This year, McClellan’s stalking bill passed both the House and the Senate. But, the legislation that ultimately succeeded contained looser penalties than the group of WILL students, Bieschke, Waddell and McClellan originally wanted, McClellan said.

According to the 2013 legislation, stalking becomes a Class 6 felony if a person is convicted of a second stalking offense within five years and had also been convicted of assault and battery, domestic assault or violating a protective order against the same victim.

“It is a relief that we’re finally doing something to strengthen the penalty for stalking,” McClellan said. “But I wish we could have gotten what was included in the original bill.”

Bieschke said she viewed this year’s legislation as a step in the right direction, but that there was still more that needed to be done.

In addition to the punishment of the perpetrator, Bieschke said, the root cause of the stalkers’ actions also deserves attention.

“It needs to be looked at as to ‘why?’” Bieschke said. “You might be angry at someone; you might be upset, but you don’t go out and kill them.

“These are lives we’re talking about, people we love. Something needs to change, and I believe in baby steps.”

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