By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On TV, Darel began airing a second program. Viewers would see Darel standing before a wicker screen decorated with plastic fruit, narrating a one-hour rant on the five-year-old case. They'd hear her belittle caseworkers by name. Or single out prosecutors for refusing to pursue her sex abuse claims.
Darel would save her most taunting commentary for Sturm, introducing the judge as "the worse fascist of them all." As if thumbing her nose at the court, she would hold up the old picture of her ex-husband lying in bed with his daughter, their faces blotted out.
"This is not Nazi Germany yet, Helen Sturm," Darel would say, as her dogs yapped in the background. "This is America, and there are still constitutional rights to expose corruption."
Ask Darel's supporters about her protest methods, and they're likely to say they don't condone everything she did. It wasn't especially wise of her to label Sturm a "Nazi" on TV, no matter how obscure the station. Nor was it smart to broadcast the old photograph, no matter how she tried to conceal identities.
"I don't think she's been wise in the ways she's outspoken," says Getz, of the Coalition for Family Justice, who believes Darel can confuse courage and defiance. "If you're at the mercy of a judge, you don't want to expose yourself to the judge's retaliatory power."
Manhattan psychiatrist Seth Farber, who testified on Darel's behalf in 1999 and has followed her case since, says he urged his client to stop producing The Real News. "She had high hopes the whole world was watching and people would become outraged," he recalls. "All signs pointed to the fact that the judge, the ACS caseworkers, and her ex-husband were getting angry."
Darel not only refused to shut up, but she started screaming louder. In January 2002, when her ex-husband received full custody of their daughter, Darel admits, "I went ballistic."
She sent her daughter's school a warning that her ex-husband should be watchedand included the bedroom picture. Twice, she brought the old photograph to police and ACS caseworkers to report him for suspected abuse. In divorce court, she served aggressive legal motions in which she threatened to keep talking about the alleged abuse. "I was trying to protect my child," she says.
One month later, her ex-husband filed a second contempt petition, citing these actions and alleging that Darel had further violated the protective order, according to court records. Accompanying the February 14 petition was an affidavit. In it, he described how his ex-wife had contacted authorities and "falsely reported an allegation of sexual abuse," thereby subjecting him and his daughter to "upsetting and embarrassing questioning."
He asked for jail time. "It is apparent to me that the only way my daughter and I can receive the protection we are entitled to is for the Court to punish [Darel] for her continued contemnaceous [sic] conduct by incarcerating her," the affidavit stated.
During the 2002 contempt trial, Darel's daughter, then 12 and living with her father, said she wanted to stay with her dad. On the witness stand, according to court transcripts, the pre-teen recanted her claim of sexual abuse and blamed her mother for putting her up to her past disclosures. "I went along with it 'cause I just wanted to make her happy," the girl testified.
On October 4, 2002, Darel walked into Judge Sturm's courtroom, known as Part Eight, for the last of eight hearings. Testimony was heard, arguments made. Then Sturm handed down a decision that experts in family law describe as unprecedented in their field: She sentenced Darel to three years in jail for contempt.
State law allows Family Court judges to jail someone found to have violated a protective order for six months per violation. To incarcerate Darel so long, Sturm strung together consecutive six-month terms for six separate actsfor posting flyers outside the foster-care agency, for reporting her ex-husband to police and the state's child abuse hotline, for sending school officials the letter, and for broadcasting and rebroadcasting her TV show. From the bench, Sturm committed Darel to Rikers Island, suspending all but nine months on the condition there be no further violations.
In her 14-page decision, the judge blasted Darel not only for "her flagrant disregard for the court system," but found "she has acted with total disre- gard for the child's emotional well- being." Sturm pointed out that, during in-chambers interviews, the daughter had begged to have a "normal life."
Sturm issued a final protective order, effective from October 2002 to October 2005, barring Darel from visiting her daughter. And the judge prohibited her from "broadcasting any images of the child and of the father in any format and posting materials regarding them in public."
The breadth of such language confounds lawyers interviewed by the Voice. Friedman, of Hofstra Law School, questions whether any restrictions involving Darel's TV show or flyers would pass constitutional muster. "There is a First Amendment right to tell your side of the story in any medium you want," he says. And while a protective order can shield a litigant from harassing language, it cannot infringe upon another's free-speech rights. That's why such orders typically bar direct phone calls, e-mails, or face-to-face encounters.