“I just want other parents to see what I didn’t see,” Paula Modelle said Friday afternoon, her eyes closed, her thumbs pinching the bridge of her nose and her fingers interlaced, holding up her forehead.
Modelle’s 28-year-old daughter, Sarah Phillips, was killed in November 2017 in her Egg Harbor Township home. The autopsy revealed Phillips suffered multiple blunt- and sharp-force injuries, and the death was ruled a homicide.
Phillips’ boyfriend and the father of her four children, Lashaun Smith, 37, is charged with murder and weapons offenses in Phillips’ death.
The past two years have been lethal for women in South Jersey. Since December 2016, Phillips, Jacqueline Hoyle, 23, and Bessy Blanco, 54, both of Atlantic City; Denise Tarves Webber, 54, of Ocean City; and Tara O’Shea-Watson, 35, of Commercial Township, were killed, and either present or past partners have been charged in their deaths.
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As devastating as the deaths were, surviving family members now have to go through lengthy court appearances, a process that can take years and cause strain, before justice is served.
The Press of Atlantic City has been tracking these cases as they wind through the court system as part of Breaking the Cycle, a project that aims to shed light on issues of domestic violence in the region and solutions.
The New Jersey State Police 2016 Domestic Violence Report, released this year, shows a 6 percent increase in the number of domestic violence-related homicides across the state from 2015. Of the 52 reported homicides in 2016, Atlantic County accounted for three, Cumberland County two and none in Cape May County, according to the report.
Modelle described her daughter as young, hardworking and loving. But, looking back, she said, she remembers how Smith started to control her daughter and their children, Phillips’ shrinking self-esteem and how she gradually isolated herself from family and friends.
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“I believe these are classic signs of the beginning of domestic violence,” Modelle said. “I never knew. But if I knew what to look for and said something, would that have made it worse?”
Smith rejected a plea deal that carried a 40-year prison sentence last month. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Jan. 22 in Atlantic County Superior Court.
“Once the court case is over, I might be able to grieve knowing my daughter has been served justice,” Modelle said. “Until then, I won’t rest.”
Donna O. D’Andrea, a victim advocate with Avanzar, the former Atlantic County Women’s Center, said the healing process for survivors can’t really begin until the court process is over.
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“When do you get to begin your process to heal?” she asked. “Because there’s no closure yet. Things are still in limbo.”
The effects of domestic violence ripple outside the relationship, D’Andrea explained. In a domestic violence-related murder, surviving family members often take responsibility for any children from those relationships, and that can be an emotional and financial strain.
Modelle, who has custody of Phillips’ four children, ages 6 to 11, said she doesn’t know if they’ll ever have closure.
“The two people who were supposed to create the most care and safety in their life created the most violence,” she said. “Nothing is going to wash away that trauma.”
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But it’s not at all unusual for these types of cases to take time, said Nicole Wise, an attorney who works at the intersection of family law and criminal defense, obtaining restraining orders for some clients while defending others from allegations of abuse.
In most murder cases, and even serious assault cases, there might be a lot of medical records as well as forensic-type activity that needs to go on, she explained, and those investigations take time.
Under current law, the Prosecutor’s Office has 90 days from the defendant’s detainment to indict, then 180 days to bring them to trial, she explained.
“Just on the basis of the law itself, the prosecutor has a full 240 days to hold the person,” she said. “It might seem like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not.”
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Wise said she can understand frustration from the public and surviving family members regarding the length of the court process, but there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, especially in domestic violence cases, where past offenses may need to be researched, she said.
While the case is going through court, however, it’s important for surviving family members to take care of themselves, D’Andrea said.
“Because sometimes that’s really what it’s about, being able to take care of yourself,” she said. “Self care is so important for anyone who has experienced a trauma.”
And that trauma can continue to surface each time that family member appears in court.
“You don’t want to miss any of it, and that’s the whole thing,” D’Andrea said. “They think, ‘If I miss one, I’m losing information.’ And sometimes, it’s just the point — ‘I want the man, or woman, to see me there each time because I want them to remember it’s my daughter whose life he took.’”