For the second time in less than a week, the state Department of Corrections has done a 180-degree turn regarding a Madison woman who courageously came forward to report a sexual assault. The second about-face resulted in the rape victim, 52-year-old Lorraine Cook, being led from a courtroom today in handcuffs.
"It's outrageous," says Diana Van Rybroek, Cook's public defender. "They're just spinning around and this woman's life is hanging in the balance. They're playing games with her."
Both of the DOC's changes of heart appear to have been prompted by concerns about the agency's public image. Last Friday, the day after Isthmus ran an article on how Cook had spent two months in jail, and as other media (the Associated Press and WKOW prepared their own reports), the DOC ordered Cook's immediate release, gave her $20 and put her up at a hotel.
This surprised Van Rybroek, who explained in court Thursday that the DOC had announced plans to appeal an administrative law judge's ruling denying its effort to re-incarcerate Cook for violating the conditions of her probation. The DOC, she related, also said it was willing to drop its requirement that Cook have no contact with her partner, Cynthia Lewis, if Lewis filed an affidavit to this effect. This would have allowed Cook to return home. Lewis promptly completed said affidavit.
Cook, who has a history of mostly minor run-ins with the law, was convicted last year of substantial battery for having hit Lewis in the head with a frying pan during a domestic altercation. She was sentenced to 30 months of probation and six months in jail; the jail sentence was stayed pending her satisfactory completion of a stay at a Madison halfway house.
But on two occasions, Cook left the halfway house. The first time landed her back in jail for more than two months. Last fall, after being at the facility for about six weeks, she left again, returning to live with Lewis. A probation warrant was issued for her arrest, but apparently police did not attempt to find her.
On Jan. 3, Cook was attacked by a male acquaintance, resulting in her arm being broken near the shoulder in several places. Afraid of being discovered, she used an alias when she sought emergency room treatment. Five days later, she was brutally raped by another male acquaintance in his vehicle; after fleeing the scene, she decided that he posed a danger to the community that outweighed her own fears about being discovered.
And so Cook did what in retrospect appears to be a stupid thing: She called police to report that she had been raped. Early the next morning, when she was released from Meriter after a full sexual assault exam, police took her directly to jail.
The man Cook accused of raping her was also arrested. According to Van Rybroek, Cook was at one point led past him in the jail. He was soon released, while additional evidence is gathered and the Dane County District Attorney's Office weighs whether to press charges.
The spectacle of a rape victim languishing behind bars while her assailant goes free obviously presented a public relations problem for the DOC. But so, it turns out, does suddenly releasing her after two months. It suggests there was something morally questionable about throwing a rape victim in jail in the first place. Can't have that.
Early this week, DOC supervisor Leann Moberly notified Van Rybroek that the DOC would oppose the lifting of this no-contact order and further, that it would seek to return Cook to jail for the remainder of her six-month jail term, as well as for an additional six months.
Why did the DOC twice change its mind? Fortunately, there is no need to speculate. A Post-It note attached to a filing with the court from DOC probation and parole agent Verla Barnes states: "Judge Martin -- This appeal letter was withdrawn on 3/7/08 by Regional Office due to media coverage of the case. I was directed by my supervisor, Leann Moberly, to appeal decision."
In other words, the DOC acted to avoid bad PR. And then, after a couple of days, as media interest waned, it decided it would look better if it could establish that Cook was a dangerous criminal who belongs behind bars. And so it decided to go back on its earlier promises.
Fortunately for the agency, the Dane County District Attorney's Office and Circuit Court Judge James Martin were only too happy to help.
Assistant DA Lyn Opelt told the court she agreed with the DOC's recommendation to return Cook to jail for the remainder of her six-month sentence plus another six months "because of her blatant refusal to follow the conditions of her probation." She said Cook "has to be held accountable for her actions, in order to protect Ms. Lewis, in particular."
Yes, Cynthia Lewis, the same person who professes love for Cook and who signed an affidavit stating that she wishes the no-contact order be removed. Opelt said Cook's rape and the two months she'd already spent in jail in pain with a broken arm was "a separate issue."
Van Rybroek, in turn, related some of what her client had been through and the flip-flopping the DOC had engaged in. She reported being "surprised and shocked" to find the Post-It note from Barnes admitting the DOC was driven by concerns about media attention. "I have never in my 20 years of practice in Dane County seen a situation like this."
Cook, said Van Rybroek, had agreed to obtain treatment and install a device in her home to prove that she was not using alcohol. She'd even applied for admission to an inpatient treatment program run by Hope Haven.
"I disagree wholeheartedly and strongly that this woman needs to be kept locked up to protect the public," Van Rybroek told the court. "I don't see what's changed since the department thought it was appropriate to release her."
Given an opportunity to speak, Cook said: "I apologize to the court for wasting your time. I would like to continue treatment at Hope Haven [and elsewhere]. I would like to see Cynthia. I do apologize, I know that's probably not good enough for anybody."
It was not good enough for Judge Martin. After chewing Cook out for walking away from the halfway house on two occasions, he said he found "no basis" for cutting her a break based on her experience of being raped and the acute suffering she experience in jail. "You need to follow court orders," he lectured.
Martin then ordered Cook returned to jail for the un-served portion of her original six-month sentence, which was figured to be about 35 days. He said he would stay this sentence if she does manage to get accepted into Hope Haven. He also refused to remove the no-contact order, although he might consider a future request to remove it.
A second bailiff was summoned to take the approximately 5-foot, 100-pound Cook back to jail. She reacted with pain from her broken arm as the handcuffs were applied. And then she was led away.
Meanwhile, Madison police are refusing to confirm or deny reports that the man Cook accused of raping her has left town. MPD spokesman Joel DeSpain says he has no information, other than that the man had no last known address. Others in the department, including lead Det. Al Rickey, ignored information requests.
Earlier, Capt. Carl Gloede told Isthmus there is little police can do to prevent released suspects from fleeing. "That's one of the kinks in our criminal justice system," he said. "The jail can only hold so many people."
And so the focus is on locking up only the most dangerous -- like Lorraine Cook.