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Zuver & Pelfini:
A Study in Gender and Class

‘Battered women who kill ... ultimately serve higher sentences than any other kind of defendant, including serial rapists and murderers. This is nothing short of misogyny. This is nothing short of a criminal justice system that is dealing very differently with women as defendants, and in particular battered women as defendants, than any other kind of defendant."

Sarah Buel, Assistant District Attorney
Suffolk County Domestic Violence Unit

Debi ZuverAt 11:30 on Thanksgiving night, shots rang out in Debi Zuver's apartment in a quiet Santa Rosa neighborhood. Kim Garloff, Zuver's ex-boyfriend, was shot and later died of his wounds. Debi Zuver is in Sonoma County jail charged with murder in his death. Zuver, a 36 year-old restaurant worker, had ended a relationship with Garloff just a few months before the shooting. Neighbors say the couple had argued earlier that night.

Kim Garloff had a history of criminal convictions. He was due to stand trial in January on three felonies related to the manufacture of methamphetamine. As that trial neared, Garloff reportedly became increasingly freaked out and controlling of Debi, who was to be a witness in the case -- perhaps the only thing standing between him and a long prison term. His threats to kill became more frequent and more graphic as the trial date approached.

Who's the Real Victim?
Although there is no record of previous reports to police of Kim Garloff's violence and threats against her, friends and other witnesses affirm that Debi Zuver is a domestic violence victim, now charged with the murder of the man who had terrorized her. Purple Beret advocate Tanya Brannan visited Debi in jail just days after her arrest and noted extensive bruising on Debi's arms and abdomen -- fingertip-sized bruises up one arm, a bruise in the mid-stomach the size and shape of a fist.

In a criminal justice system that is no more gender-blind than it is color-blind, the chances that Debi Zuver will get a fair hearing may, to a great extent, depend on us.

We live in a country where women who kill their batterers are likely to do far more prison time than do the men, often life-long batterers, who murder their innocent female victims. Unfortunately, there are indications that we may have a ringside seat to such unequal justice right here in a Santa Rosa courtroom.

Alongside another upcoming homicide trial, that of Dr. Louis Pelfini, Debi Zuver's case promises to provide a striking study of the effects of class and gender on the criminal justice system's perception and prosecution of domestic violence.

Louis PelfiniThe Murder of Janet Pelfini
In late December 2000, Louis Pelfini, a Petaluma doctor, was charged with the murder thirteen months earlier of his wife, Janet Pelfini. One November night in 1999, Louis Pelfini called 911 to say that his wife had committed suicide. When asked by the dispatcher, "How do you think she took her life?" Pelfini responded: "She stuck her head in a bucket of water."

According to prosecutors, however, forensic evidence shows Janet Pelfini was smothered by someone holding something over her mouth and nose, and marks on her body led to the conclusion that she was assaulted. Police at the scene had noted that her head and clothes were dry. There was no water on the ground around the bucket or her body. The autopsy later showed no water in her lungs, ruling out death by drowning -- "suicidal" or otherwise.

Yet Louis Pelfini was not arrested that night, or after the autopsy results came in, or even after he reportedly failed a lie detector test. In fact, Janet Pelfini's death didn't even immediately launch a murder investigation. Why? Because, according to prosecutor Brooke Halsey, "The detective was taken with his [Pelfini's] status in the community ..."

In fact, more than a year would pass before the Sonoma County Grand Jury finally indicted Pelfini in the murder. (Even then, the local newspaper report of the indictment included seven paragraphs on what a great guy the doctor is, while portraying the murdered victim as a belligerent alcoholic.)

Pelfini's high-priced lawyer argued against high bail, telling the judge Pelfini was not a man of means but a "simple country doctor." When the judge refused, Pelfini posted the $750,000 bail that day and is free pending trial.

Debi Zuver, represented by the public defender, has been in jail since the night Kim Garloff was shot, and will likely remain there until her trial.



© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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