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Rhonda Saunders Discusses Stalking
On Court TV
March 25, 2004

Court TV Host: Discuss stalking with L.A. Deputy District Attorney Rhonda Saunders, who has handled the stalking cases of Madonna, Steven Spielberg, and Gwyneth Paltrow. And while we may hear more about such celebrities being stalked, Saunders says that ordinary individuals are far more vulnerable to stalkers. Saundersí case files are the subject of a new documentary, Reasonable Fear, on The System. She was just on Catherine Crier Live, and she will be here in just a moment. If youíd like to take a look at another interview Ms. Saunders has done with, click here.

Court TV Host: Our guest, L.A. Deputy District Attorney Rhonda Saunders, is here. Welcome, thanks for being our guest online today.

Court TV Host: Is there anything you didnít get a chance to say on the air hat youíd like to begin with here, before we take questions.

Rhonda Saunders: Studies have shown that one out of every 12 women has been stalked at some point in their life, and one out of every 45 men has been stalked. So we have a pretty large population -- and anyone can be a stalker, and anyone can be a stalking victim.

Question from smartblonde: Is stalking a felony?

Rhonda Saunders: In California, stalking is a felony. But it varies from state to state. In 1994, I went to Sacramento to change Californiaís stalking Law so that even a first-time stalking, even if there isnít a restraining order, can be prosecuted as a felony. Every state in this country now has a stalking law. California was the first state to have a stalking law. We are now seeing other countries, such as Britain, Japan, Canada, Sweden adopt stalking laws -- they all have stalking laws that have been recently passed. So stalking is not something that just happens in Los Angeles -- it happens all over the world.

Question from peepers: Why is it that police can only act after too much damage has been done?

Rhonda Saunders: Thatís not true. Before we had stalking laws, that was he case. Victims were told, come back when he hurts you. The reason we have stronger laws is to be able to intervene before someone winds up being raped, murdered or assaulted.

Question from tantre: Hi, Rhonda, what was the worst stalking case you covered?

Rhonda Saunders: That case in fact will be profiled tonight on Reasonable Fear -- and it wasnít a celebrity case. It was a woman who cleans houses fo a living and a housewife. She was abused for years by her husband. At one point she did try to leave and got a restraining order, but the police didnít take it seriously. So she went back to the abusive relationship and gave up hope. Finally, she couldnít take the abuse anymore, because he was threatening to kill her and also their two children. She got the courage to leave, she got a restraining order. She went to her sisterís for help. He followed her to her sisterís home, he threatened to kill her sister, who was trying to protect her. He called the victim and told the victim that he was across the street from where she was staying, and that she would never get away from him She didnít go to the police, even though he was stalking her, because she had given up hope with the system. The day that she went to get her divorce papers, he followed her in a car that he had just gotten, so she wouldnít recognize it. He had a hat with a wide brim that he pulled down over his face, so she wouldnít see who was driving the car, and he followed her up this mountain road, knowing that was the way she would go home every day. He crashed his car into hers, hoping she would go over the side of the mountain. That didnít happen, but she had to pull her car over to he side of the road because it had been damaged. Some people driving by stopped to try to help her. He drove up to where they were, came out of his car, holding a fake gun and very large fishing knife. The people saw the gun, panicked, and left the scene. He came up behind her and said a couple of words , and she turned around -- up until this time, she didnít know it was him -- and he started slashing her with the knife, almost severing her wrist, and gave her eight lethal wounds to the heart. He then got into her car and managed to drive away to Laughlin, Nevada, where he gambled all night. Her two young sons aged 9 and 14 were at home, waiting for mom to get back. There was a knock on the door, and it was the police, and thatís when they found out that their father had murdered their mother. The victim knew that something would happen to her, so she made her sister swear to take care of the children, should she die. Her older sister then took he two boys into her house and the older boy a couple of days after the murder, ran away, saying that he was going to kill himself, because he felt guilty that he wasnít there to stop his father and save his mother. Luckily, they found him in time. After trial, when he was convicted and awaiting sentencing, his oldest son came to court. He knew his son was there, but he swaggered out of the lockup, looked at his son, looked at the judge and said, ďSo what if Marie is dead, this was a war. She deserved to die.Ē The young boy jumped up and tried to get to his father, swinging his fist. The bailiff had to jump the young boy, but the defendant looked at his own son, and said, ďYou want a piece of me? Come get it.Ē And the young boy had to be dragged out of court, screaming. The judge, very upset as we all were, yelled at the bailiff, ďDonít hurt himĒ meaning the boy, and the father just
stood there with a smirk on his face. He was sentenced to death, and he is on death row right now. That was the worst case I ever handled.

Question from CAptJackSparroW: They say that it usually requires forced separation from the victim, what can the system provide to ensure that this happens, if they arenít in jail?

Rhonda Saunders: Thatís always been a problem. We have restraining orders and to many stalkers, itís just a piece of paper. Itís not going to stop hem. However, if they do try to maintain contact with the victim they can be arrested again, a high bail can be set, we can request electronic monitoring. However, there is no sure solution to that problem. These stalkers never stop -- even while they are in jail or prison. They continue to write letters, they continue to make collect calls. They want the victim to know they are still there, and that they still have power over the victim. In California, we added language to our stalking law, adding that incarceration is not a defense to stalking. So that even if they are in jail, we can charge hem with a new stalking offense and keep them in jail even longer.

Qestion from AnnaLiz: Do all states have stalking laws?

Question from sorrow3lO: How can you find what the stalking laws are in our state?

Rhonda Saunders: Yes. You can call the local police department and ask them what the stalking laws are. You can use the Internet, and search your state and use such terms as stalking, harassment, threats, and find out what the laws are in each state. Every state puts their statutes on the internet.

Question from smartblonde: How does one prove stalking?

Rhonda Saunders: Most states have taken their language from California, so there are usually three elements: One is repeated following or harassment -- all that means is that it happened more than once. Two, we have to show a credible threat; however it does not have to be a direct threat, it can be indirect and it can be implied by the stalkerís conduct. It can be written or transmitted over the internet. Three, we need to show the stalker wants to terrorize the victim -- not necessarily intending to carry out the threat -- but they want the victim to believe that they will, thus terrorizing the victim. And usually we do have to show that the victim is in reasonable fear, either for themselves or for their family members. We tell victims to keep a diary. Every time they receive a phone call, write it down. Every time they see the stalker, write it down. Another good thing to do, if the stalker is outside the house, is to look around to see if there is a neighbor, or someone delivering mail. Write that personís name down, because they may be a potential witness. Never erase any messages that a stalker leaves on an answering machine. Donít throw away letters. Handle hem very carefully. If possible, put them in a plastic bag. All of this is evidence, and in stalking cases, it usually occurs over a long period of time. Numerous phone calls, people at work or neighbors see the stalker -- there are other things that might be evidence -- like a love note, weighed down by a bullet-- we had that once. And especially with telephone calls, itís not whatís said, but its the way that the stalker said it, that convinces the jury.

Question from CAptJackSparroW: Is there anything that separates female stalkers from male stalkers? or do they all display the same symptoms?

Rhonda Saunders: They display the same symptoms -- rejection, anger, ego. Although there are more male stalkers than female stalkers, the female stalkers can be just as lethal and just as devious.

Question from CAptiackSparroW: Is it true that most stalkers are difficult to rehabilitate if not impossible?

Question from CApt3ackSparroW: Have you ever come across a stalker that has been successfully rehabilitated?

Rhonda Saunders: Itís almost impossible to rehabilitate a stalker. Thereís no pill you can give them. All the mental health counseling in the world doesnít seem to stop the obsessive behavior, and I can think of only one case in all the cases where a stalker really wanted to do something with his life other than be a stalker, and actually put himself into a program for over a year, and from what I understand, he is functioning in society. That is one out of a thousand.

Question from eowyn: Have you seen cases where a stalker will stalk other family members when the intended target has moved or passed on?

Rhonda Saunders: Absolutely. Thatís why we added language in our state, and many other states have followed, that the stalking can be against the victim or the victimís immediate family, and itís very common, not in celebrity cases, but in domestic violence cases, for the stalker to shift from the victim to a relative like a mother, or husband or child. We saw that in the Poynton case which I spoke of earlier, when the husband was calling the victim's sisters and threatening to kill them for protecting the victim. there's another case that involved two women, one stalking the other, in which the stalker went to prison for ten years; when she got out, she couldnít find the victim, who was in hiding, but she knew where the victimís mother was, who was in her eighties. She then started to leave notes tacked to the victimís motherís door.

Question from janjo: I have been stalked by my ex-husband since our divorce, however, he doesnít do anything illegal. Should I be concerned?

Rhonda Saunders: It depends what you mean by illegal. A series of harassing phone calls could be illegal, if heís violating a protective order -- thatís illegal. So it depends on his conduct, and it doesnít have to rise to a stalking, it could be other crimes that heís committing -- harassing phone calls, vandalism, simple assault, violating a restraining order. Those things are illegal.

Question from WildCat: Whatís the difference between stalking and harassment?

Rhonda Saunders: Harassment is part of stalking. Harassment is repeatedly contacting, annoying, writing hundreds and hundreds of e-mails. Harassment by itself is not necessarily stalking, but part of stalking has to be harassment.

Court TV Host: Any closing thoughts?

Rhonda Saunders: If you are being stalked, donít feel that it is anything that you have done, Donít blame yourself. Seek out help from the police as soon as possible.

Court TV Host: Thank you very much for being our guest today.

Rhonda Saunders: Youíre welcome.

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