Her Right to Be Obnoxious

Hell hath no fury like a mother scorned

"I have a problem with whether a television airing even fits within the definition of a protective order," Friedman says, adding that the same could be said of leaflets. "It's beyond the power of the judge, under the First Amendment, to say to a litigant, 'You cannot engage in public debate about your case.' "

Bruce Young, a civil rights attorney appointed to represent Darel while she was at Rikers, seconds that. "Dyandria pissed off a lot of people," he tells the Voice. "She's determined and outspoken, and it put her in jail."


Dyandria Darel with a sign from her weekly protests outside the Administration for Children's Services. The sign includes a picture she claims she snapped in 1995 of her now ex-husband lying naked in bed with their young daughter and the family dog. She obscured their faces. We obscured the name of the child-protective worker whom Darel accuses of botching the agency's sexual abuse case.
photo: Brian Kennedy
Dyandria Darel with a sign from her weekly protests outside the Administration for Children's Services. The sign includes a picture she claims she snapped in 1995 of her now ex-husband lying naked in bed with their young daughter and the family dog. She obscured their faces. We obscured the name of the child-protective worker whom Darel accuses of botching the agency's sexual abuse case.

Darel had repeatedly defied Judge Sturm's orders, and Sturm had had it with behavior that she thought not only bordered on the volatile but also embarrassed the child in question. But while Darel had gone to unusual lengths, family-law experts say, she isn't alone in her unwillingness to obey a judge. If a parent violates that no-contact order, as Darel was found to have done, there are less-punitive measures for a judge to use. Under state law, Sturm could also have sentenced Darel to probation, or forced her to attend therapy, or made her pay her ex's court costs.

As Sturm read her sentence, a court officer was handcuffing Darel's wrists and shackling her feet. She was ushered to a cell, where she waited for a bus bound for Rikers. Another court officer handed her a Bible and said, "Pray."

"I thought it was a temporary thing," Darel recalls of her first hours in jail.

But that optimistic view would dim each day she sat behind bars. For the most part, she spent her time at Rikers confined to the so-called civil cell, a large room with five beds she says were rarely occupied. She was allotted one hour a day to exercise outside, on a concrete slab. Otherwise, she remained locked up, alone.

On October 7, 2002, just three days after she arrived there, the Manhattan district attorney's office filed a 44-count indictment against her, resulting from a two-year investigation into her protests. A copy of the indictment shows that prosecutors alleged Darel had committed felony crimes such as stalking the judge and threatening her ex-husband. They also accused her of harassment, coercion, criminal contempt, and falsely reporting abuse.

Nine months later, Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Carol Berkman dismissed the indictment, mostly for a lack of evidence. In a July 28, 2003 ruling, the judge hinted at her disdain for Darel's tactics— indeed, as the judge wrote, "Her behavior evidences serious mental-health issues." Still, Berkman found "no evidence" that Darel had explicitly threatened or physi- cally harmed her ex-husband or any gov- ernment officials. "Without an intentional threat, defendant's behavior cannot amount to the crime," ruled Berkman, noting Darel had a "constitutional right to be obnoxious."

Meanwhile, in the Family Court proceedings, Judge Sturm extended Darel's time on Rikers after her ex-husband filed a fresh contempt petition. This time, according to the June 27, 2003, motion, he alleged that Darel had "willfully failed to obey the Order of this Court in that: she sent numerous correspondence to his home."


For the next 18 months, Darel would sit behind bars waiting for Sturm to rule on these additional allegations. When the judge did, in November 2004, she found that Darel had violated the protective order by having her ex-husband served with three legal documents. "She has attempted to use the court system to further her own personal vendetta against [her former spouse] and his family on numerous occasions," Sturm wrote. Darel, the judge ruled, must remain in jail for 10 more weeks.

By then, Darel's prison plight had gotten attention. Advocates monitoring the Family Court system heard about the outspoken mother who had landed in jail, and they circulated her story on Internet listservs from New York to New Mexico to California. They appeared at Darel's court proceedings, keeping an eye on Judge Sturm, whom they describe as a domineering jurist with clear hostility toward Darel.

Darel, meanwhile, had been passing time in the prison law library, researching contempt. A judge can find someone in civil or criminal contempt for an act of judicial defiance. A person who commits the criminal variety must serve a fixed amount of time behind bars as punishment. Yet civil contempt gives you the key to the jail door. Do what a judge has ordered you to do, and you get released. That's how it was for most of the women who would cycle through Rikers civil cell because of Family Court contempt orders—they got out whenever they, say, paid their child support.

But Darel could do nothing to get out of prison. Technically she was a civil inmate. Effectively she was treated like a criminal—one convicted without a trial. "The sentence was unconstitutional," Darel claims. "I had a right to a jury trial."

She raised the issue in a writ of habeas corpus that was written mostly by hand. She filed a motion with Sturm to move her case from Family Court to Criminal Court. She called New York attorneys from jail soliciting opinions on her claims.

"I visited her there," says Manhattan attorney Tom Shanahan, who heard about Darel's incarceration in the fall of 2004. He thinks her constitutional beefs are legitimate—and he adds another. "I believe she was cruelly and inhumanely punished," he asserts, referring to the Eighth Amendment. When he saw her at Rikers, he recalls, "She looked like a broken woman. She was serving more time than violent offenders."

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