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Sophomore parlays personal tragedy into political action

Ashlee Newman launches Justice for Heather Coalition to fight domestic violence

Sep 19, 2012 — Article by: Carol Boll

Ashlee Newman with New Jersey State senators

Sophomore Ashlee Newman (center) with New Jersey State Senators Linda Greenstein (left) and Barbara Buono after a press conference during which the senators called for the adoption of three bills to modernize domestic violence laws in the Garden State.

As a high school student in Farmingdale, N.J., Ashlee Newman exhibited an early passion for the study of law. After her family suffered the tragic loss of a loved one to domestic violence last December, the sophomore coed developed a deep passion for justice as well.

A political science major in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences and member of the Renée Crown Honors Program, Newman says the death of her 37-year-old cousin, Heather, at the hands of her estranged husband might have been avoided had the New Jersey justice system functioned as it should have. “She had filed for divorce, she had two filings for restraining orders denied, she did everything as she should have—and the system failed to protect her,” Newman says. “The court system failed her, and New Jersey failed her.”

Those failures prompted Newman to launch an independent study project last January to document her cousin’s case and raise awareness of domestic violence. As part of the project, supervised by public policy professor William Coplin, she met with prosecutors and professionals in the field, compiled an eight-page timeline of key events leading up to her cousin’s death, launched the Justice for Heather Coalition, and, with support from SU’s Honors Program, attended the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Conference in July.

On Thursday, Sept. 13, Newman joined State Sen. Barbara Buono at the New Jersey State House for a press conference to generate awareness of, and support for, three proposed anti-domestic violence measures, including Senate Bill 331, which would permit GPS tracking of abusers against whom a permanent restraining order has been granted. Newman admits that the bill, which will be called Heather’s Law if passed, would not have saved her cousin, since her request for a permanent restraining order was twice denied. But she takes comfort in the fact that the measure very likely would save others. “The system didn’t protect Heather,” she says. “But if this law will enable it to protect other women, that’s a step.”

Newman’s work will also inform her Honors Capstone Project, in which she hopes to conduct a comparative analysis of domestic violence laws on an international scale. And while her cousin’s experience clearly left Newman frustrated over the inadequacies of the justice system, she still has law school in her sights. While she hasn’t yet decided which area of law to concentrate on, she says, “This whole experience has really opened my eyes about doing good and serving the public interest and making a difference.”

Right now that means building awareness of a tragic truth. “There’s so much going on, and it’s so exciting, because all of these things are another way to share Heather’s story, another way for one more person to know that domestic violence does kill, and it’s happening in every neighborhood to somebody that we all know,” she says. “If people are more aware, they can bring public and political pressure. When they are informed, that’s when change happens.”

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Judy Holmes