A woman who turned to a local court for help to keep her alleged stalker away says a mistake made by the court left her fearing for her life.
It's the latest problem for Roxbury District Court, which has been the focus of years of complaints of mismanagement.
In this case, entrepreneur Christine Fedele sought help after a business relationship turned sour. The man she hired to do engineering work for her, Melvin Morrison, began harassing her after she fired him, she says.
“Things started going really bad with harassing e-mails, non-stop, threatening me,” said Fedele. “Eighteen, 19 pages of him slandering me and e-mailing me, he was going to teach me a lesson. I knew I needed a restraining order immediately.”
To get that order, Fedele went to Roxbury District Court where she ran into even more trouble.
“A woman in the court house comes up to me and says, ‘What do you want?’ in front of the whole court house. And I said, I'm here for a restraining order. She said, ‘Now? Why now? You can't come back tomorrow?’ I said, well I have no choice. I need to get this restraining order.
The clerk denied trying to delay Fedele, who eventually did see a judge who granted her a harassment prevention order.
“I walked out of that court house and I felt, at least I could go home. So I did feel relieved,” said Fedele.
But the relief didn't last long. Two days later, Morrison sent more threatening e-mails. Fedele called police, and was shocked to hear they had no record of the order.
“They made a couple calls and then called me later saying that we have bad news. There’s no restraining order, there's no paperwork. I was horrified. I was absolutely horrified. I thought, I'm in trouble. I really am in trouble,” said Fedele.
Morrison lives in Somerset. Roxbury court clerks should have faxed the harassment prevention order to the police department there.
But Somerset police tell Fox Undercover what they told Fedele: when she first called, they had no order.
Frustrated and scared, Fedele bought her own fax machine and sent her own copy to Somerset police.
Once police served Morrison with the order, the e-mails stopped.
The official clerk's notes in the case back up Fedele’s story. The first notation is from Feb. 17, the day that Fedele went before a judge and was first granted an order.
The notes for that day also show that someone wrote down the Somerset police’s fax number. A court official says that notation was not made to suggest that the order was faxed that day.
The court clerk’s notes show that the order was not faxed until six days later, on Feb. 23.
We asked one of the clerks involved, Dawn Kelley, for answers, but she ignored questions from FOX Undercover’s Mike Beaudet.
However, there are plenty of others who say incompetence has been a long-standing problem in Roxbury District Court.
Just last year a judge who served there wrote that court clerks were routinely making errors on restraining orders, which are similar to Fedele's harassment prevention order.
If those mistakes hadn't been caught, Judge Robert McKenna wrote, "...the lives of seriously battered women would have been in grave danger."
Before that another justice, Judge Kathleen Coffey also said the court was mishandling restraining orders.
“I take very seriously what Judge Coffey and Judge McKenna said and the people of Roxbury deserve to have those issues dealt with,” said Peter Anderson, a retired judge who also served as a judge in Roxbury.
He saw problems of his own, including people being wrongly detained because of clerk's errors.
In 2008, Fox Undercover investigated the clerk magistrate and found he was a virtual no-show.
But Anderson says two of the state's top judges, Boston Municipal Court Chief Justice Charles Johnson and the state's top administrative judge, Robert Mulligan, have so far ignored the issue.
“What seems to go on here is that there isn't a willingness on the part of Chief Justice Johnson or frankly Chief Justice Mulligan to look into problems that are brought to their attention,” said Anderson.
It’s all very frustrating to Christine Fedele, whose harassment protection order was lost by the court.
“I don't understand why it operates the way it does. I really don't,” said Fedele.
It looks like the state's highest court is starting to pay attention to the way Roxbury District Court operates.
The Supreme Judicial Court took the unusual step of assigning a new first assistant clerk to work in Roxbury.
In a statement to FOX Undercover, that clerk, William K. Walsh, says he has found no problems with restraining orders in particular and generally has not seen "…exceptional issues that would warrant critical intervention."
Roxbury District Court's top judge, David Weingarten, admits that Christine Fedele's order wasn't served on time and says appropriate disciplinary action is being taken.
The judge goes on to say that orders like these are taken very seriously by the court and that "the people of Roxbury deserve and receive our best efforts every day."
Statement of First Justice David Weingarten
to Fox News regarding the Roxbury Court
April 6, 2011
The Roxbury Court takes harassment prevention orders and restraining orders very seriously. The Court does not refuse to hear any harassment or restraining order application, regardless of the day or time. After discussion with staff at the Court, I have determined that the situation you inquired about occurred as follows:
Ms. Fedele appeared before the Roxbury Court on Thursday, February17th at approximately 3:30 p.m. seeking a harassment prevention order in a non-domestic dispute arising from a commercial relationship with a building contractor. Assistant Clerk Magistrate Dawn Kelly has no recollection of any conversation with the petitioner outside of the courtroom and vehemently denies having encouraged the delay of her petition. Ms. Fedele was granted a timely hearing, and after careful findings, the court issued a temporary harassment order in this business relationship at 4:15 p.m. A clerical mistake by one individual did affect the timely forwarding of the judicial order to the police. We are taking appropriate disciplinary action. This unfortunate action should not diminish the commendable work done by the Court in processing a voluminous docket each day.
Attorney William K. Walsh was appointed as the Acting First Assistant to the Clerk Magistrate, based on the consensus of the SJC, Chief Justice Mulligan and Chief Justice Johnson. The process for appointing a permanent First Assistant through an internal posting is underway. We are confident that Mr. Walsh’s assignment and the hiring of a permanent First Assistant will further enhance the operation of the Clerk’s office.
Mr. Walsh recently made the following observation of the Roxbury Clerk’s Office: “I have not identified any exceptional issues that would warrant critical intervention.” Also, regarding restraining and harassment orders, Mr. Walsh stated that he is “pleased to report that all work in these types of cases is being processed in a timely and professional manner each and every day.”
As the First Justice of Roxbury, I am committed to full compliance with all necessary protocols for the effective delivery of justice to the people of Roxbury every day. I and other leaders at the court do not shy away from acknowledging and correcting procedural difficulties as they may arise. The people of Roxbury deserve and receive our best efforts every day, and I am confident that the functioning of the court will reflect our dedication and hard work.