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Mass. lawmakers move to crack down on stalkers

Sun Statehouse Bureau

Friday, January 28, 2005 - BOSTON Five years have passed since the day a stalker murdered 32-year-old Sandra Berfield of Everett. For Cheryl Darisse of Hudson, N.H., the Jan. 20 anniversary of her sister's death was difficult and painful.

But at a Statehouse press conference yesterday, Darisse took a moment to smile.

A vocal supporter of anti-stalking laws, Darisse has been encouraged by a crackdown on criminal harassment since her sister's death. Yesterday, she and a group of lawmakers made a push for additional changes to make it easier for stalking victims to seek protection.

Had the new proposals been law five years ago, "my sister would have been able to get the protection she needed and may have had a better chance of surviving," Darisse said.

Berfield, of Everett, was killed when a package bomb delivered to her home exploded. A waitress, she had been pursued for two years by Steven Caruso, who prosecutors said visited her restaurant regularly. Berfield began to receive hang-up calls, and Caruso was jailed briefly for slashing her tires. Convicted of murder in 2003, he is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Stalking is a crime in all 50 states. But advocates say there is a gap in the law because stalking victims don't have access to civil stay-away orders that can be criminally enforced unless they have been married to the suspect or had a "substantial dating relationship."

A judge may issue a protective order as a condition of bail, but lawmakers say there is little recourse for victims who are followed or harassed by an acquaintance who hasn't been charged.

Yesterday, Sen. Pamela Resor, the author of the state's anti-stalking statute known as "Sandy's Law," gathered with colleagues and advocates to mark Stalking Awareness Month and unveil three new bills. The main legislation would allow a stalker's victim to seek a civil restraining order that carries criminal penalties for violations.

Other bills would require employers to grant leave to their employees for stalking-related court hearings and medical appointments, and ban landlords from evicting tenants who are the victim of harassment.

According to statistics provided by Jane Doe, Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, 304 people were charged with stalking-related crimes in Massachusetts in 2003.
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