It took seven years and two trips to the appellate court for Vernetta Cockerham to receive justice. About 45 supporters wearing puple and white ribbons came to the preliminary hearing at the Yadkin County, NC court house on Monday to support her. It must have intimidated the Jonesville, North Carolina police department because they offered her $430,000 to settle the case. Bravo, Vernetta! Bravo!
Vernetta’s landmark case holds police accountable for failing to enforce orders of protection. Her attorney, Harvey Kennedy, said:
We hope the impact of this case will be to ensure in the future that law-enforcement officers will take domestic-violence protective orders seriously and enforce those orders.
My own cynical sense about orders of protection is that they give police a short list of suspects after a murder. Rita Anita Linger, the executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against DV, was at Vernetta’s side when the settlement was announced. If you click here, you can get her perspective on orders of protection as a survivor and as an advocate.
Lee Ann Brennan, one of Vernetta’s survivor-supporters in the court room, said:
Thank God ~ this is good news. Hopefully police will be held accountable now. Often times they do not take the victim seriously. They blow them off thinking they are going to back [to their partner] anyway. [The Jonesville Police Department] really let her down. This verdict is wonderful.
Amen, Lee Ann.
The police department still doesn’t admit they were wrong. During the court proceeding on Monday, one of their attorneys had the audacity to suggest it was Vernetta’s fault her daughter was brutally murdered because she picked the wrong man to marry!
This arrogance didn’t surprise me because the Jonesville Police Department tried to evade responsibility twice. First, they appealed the denial of their motion to dismiss Vernetta’s case by asserting the public duty doctrine. The appellate court didn’t buy their arguments because the police officers witnessed two violations of the protection order, but failed to arrest her estranged husband Richard Ellerbee. The opinion gives an excellent narration Vernetta’s story.
Then, they tried to block Vernetta’s case by filing a motion for summary judgment. The appellate court kicked the police department to the curb:
Defendants [the police department and two officers] knew that Mr. Ellerbee had acted violently against Ms. Cockerham-Ellerbee in the past, that he continud to make threats against her, that she had an enforceable domestic violence protection order against him, and that she was actively seeking its enforcement against him.
According to Ms. Cockerham-Ellerbee, she gave the police Mr. Ellerbee’s home and work addresses and also pointed him out to Officer Vestal and Detective Gwyn while he was in the middle of violating the terms of the protective order. . .officers responded by promising to arrest him and then leaving. . .sense of security that they would be safe; failing to act on that promise unquestionably placed them in extreme danger ~ danger of which the police had been made aware ~ and reflected a reckless disregard for their rights. . .
Ms. Cockerham-Ellerbee has alleged facts that would consittute willful and wanton conduct if true.
I want to give a special shout-out to the law firm of Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, & Kennedy for standing by Vernetta all these years and representing her brilliantly.
Vernetta plans to take some time to decompress and grieve. Then, she plans to become a domestic violence activist.
Her courage to pursue this landmark case is a wake-up call to police forces around the country. She persevered in spite of insurmountable obstacles. Her case proves what we can accomplish when we all stick together.
Her story is slated for the August issue of O Magazine.