Thursday, March 22, 2012

Can the Criminal Justice System Protect Victims of Domestic Violence?

Heather Lynn McGuire, a thirty-six-year-old mother of Rockville, Maryland, presumably did everything according to the law to protect herself from her estranged husband Phillip Joseph Gilberti, a fifty-one-year-old former professional boxer originally from Kensington, Maryland.   However, on March 13, 2012, Gilberti killed McGuire, when he shot her in the back of the head and dumped her out onto Connecticut Avenue in Kensington, Montgomery County, Maryland according to witnesses interviewed at the scene by Montgomery County Police.  This alleged murder was caught on video from the Shell Gas station surveillance camera.  A manhunt then began for Gilberti, who had quite an extensive criminal history since 1984 which included attempted murder, assaults, and drugs.
About 9:40 am on Tuesday, March 13, Gilberti and Mcguire were together, driving south bound on Connecticut Avenue.  Witnesses told police that they appeared to be having some type of altercation, Chief Thomas Manger said of Montgomery County Police Department.  At least one witness claimed McGuire attempted to get out of the van, but Gilberti pulled her back into the van and shot her.  After McGuire fell to the road, witnesses say Gilberti sped off starting a manhunt for his arrest in Montgomery County, Maryland.  A tip later that evening led police to the Rockville area where Gilberti was surrounded by SWAT team members of Montgomery County Police Department.  Gilberti ultimately took his own life before SWAT team members could make entry and take Gilberti into custody.

McGuire and Gilberti, who were going through a divorce had years of trouble since they were married in 2009 according to court records.  In the three days before the shooting, Gilberti was taken twice into custody after allegedly threatening McGuire.  “This has been going on for many years and has been escalating, my children believe he is gonna kill me,” McGuire wrote in a criminal complaint.  McGuire had acquired a year-long protective order from Gilberti who continuously violated the conditions allocated by the court.  In fact, according to court records, Gilberti had nine protective orders since 2004 involving three different women.

Gilberti was taken before a court commissioner at the Montgomery County jail where he posted a $4,500 bond and was released by noon after being arrested for coming near McGuire in violation of the protective order and making threats against her.  Court records indicate McGuire said Gilberti told her that “I don’t need a gun . . . I can just snap your neck.”  Twelve hours later, McGuire filed another complaint stating that Gilberti had returned to her house and was lurking outside.  Gilberti’s second arrest of violating the protective order McGuire had filed with the court, held Gilberti on a no bond status pending a hearing on Monday morning in front of District Court Judge Barry Hamilton.  Curt Zeager, a prosecutor from the Montgomery County States’ Office did not request a specific bond but told the court that Gilberti in the past had refused to stay away from McGuire.  Judge Hamilton set a $57,000 unsecured bond after he heard the case, which meant Gilberti did not have to put up any cash or property.  Judge Hamilton ordered Gilberti to stay away from McGuire.
Gilberti clearly did not heed Judge Hamilton’s orders to stay away from McGuire as she was killed the next day after Gilberti was released in Kensington, Maryland.  Montgomery County State’s Attorney, John McCarthy told WUSA9, “unfortunately, it’s come to my attention that the computers were down in the courthouse and some of the criminal history was not available” to Judge Hamilton at the time of his decision that ultimately allowed Gilberti’s release the second time within a three day period.  McCarthy told WTOP that he still encouraged victims to report domestic violence to police because reaching out to third party helps “to break the bond of control their abuser [often] holds on them.”  It is very easy to place judgments on the criminal justice system as to whether somehow McGuire was neglected by the system and died because of that neglect.  But what happened that Tuesday morning was a tragedy that unfortunately led to a young woman’s death.  The answers are not always clear as to what can be done to improve the system to protect these victims of domestic violence, and victims should come forward and do what they can according to the law to protect themselves while understanding the importance of having a safety plan of escape along with a safe house to stay in when there would be attackers are mistakenly let out by a system that needs constant work and improvement.
Diana Cobo
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

Image by Criminal Law Brief 


  1. It's shocking to me that any judge would be willing to make any binding decision, even setting bail, without having the opportunity to first review all relevant materials. Even if the Court's computers were malfunctioning that day, it would seem perfectly reasonable to me that the Judge could question the Defendant as to his prior record. This is something that defense counsel would have likely reviewed and discussed with the Defendant, especially since his prior convictions were related to the case at hand. To ensure accuracy the Judge could even ask the Prosecutor if he was aware of prior convictions. If conflicting accounts were given, the Judge would then know that he should wait until the technology bug was fixed to set bail so that he had adequate time to review the Defendant's prior record.

  2. ""Montgomery County State’s Attorney, John McCarthy told WUSA9, “unfortunately, it’s come to my attention that the computers were down in the courthouse and some of the criminal history was not available” to Judge Hamilton at the time of his decision that ultimately allowed Gilberti’s release the second time within a three day period.""

    What a terrible excuse to tell someones family.

    very interesting though, good work d

  3. In response to Ali, my personal experience as a DV advocate has shown me that many judges do not necessarily view evidence of an abusive relationship as "relevant." Our laws and legal educations, though this is changing over time, are designed to keep family matters confined to the home. Further, with regards to orders of protection, abusive partners (and their attorneys, for that matter) are able to frame violations of those orders in a way that focuses the blame on their victims. I'm not even sure if access to those materials would have made a difference; however, because the case met a tragic end and brings the oversight into the spotlight, the criminal justice system is forced to publicly admit their errors. Unfortunately, based on the fact that women are still in more danger inside their homes than anywhere else, I'm inclined to believe that this case won't change how these things are handled in the future.

  4. Stephen has spent his entire legal career fighting for victims. First, as an Assistant State Attorney with the Hillsborough County State Attorney's office representing victims of crime and then as a personal injury attorney representing injured victims.Thank you so much ..
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  6. Hi Diana, I read your post, it was really shocking and sorrowful incident. And m also agree with A. Eacho .