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Don't turn a blind eye to suspicious behavior

Legal analyst Susan Filan:  Everyone, not just celebrities, has a right to fear stalkers.

Uma Thurman testified in a Manhattan courtroom on Friday that she was “panicked” and “completely freaked out” by Jack Jordan, who is on trial for stalking and harassing her. Jordan is accused of stalking the actress over a two and a half year period by leaving her creepy cards and email messages, sneaking onto the set of a movie she was filming in New York City, and showing up at her doorstep at her Greenwich Village home. He even contacted Thurman’s parents, urging them to relay his message of love to her.

One of his cards contained little pieces of torn paper, a dollar bill, and a picture of a headless bride. On the envelope, according to the New York Times, he drew “a male stick figure — apparently meant to be Mr. Jordan — walking off the edge of an Acme razor blade into an open grave next to a female stick figure — apparently meant to be Ms. Thurman.” Thurman testified that she was terrified.

Jordan’s defense does not sound very good. His lawyer claims he was obsessed and in love, but harmless. He claims his client did not think his actions frightened Thurman, but now understands they did. The old “I didn’t think I scared you so you couldn’t have really been scared” defense hardly seems viable after the jurors heard the actress testify for three hours which was said to have been riveting and harrowing.

Jordan apparently suffers from a mental illness, as do many stalkers. He was committed to a mental hospital in Maryland but tried to contact Thurman again after he was released. While in the hospital, he wrote to her pleading with her to help him secure his release.

Did Jordan have a right to try to see Thurman, and is she overreacting when she says she was scared? How do you know if someone is harmless?

For answers to these questions, I consulted the State of New York, Office of the Attorney General’s Web page on stalking called “Realities and Responses.”

How stalking is defined
New York has defined stalking as a “persistent and unwanted pursuit of an individual by another that would cause a reasonable person to fear. It is an intentional and unpredictable course of conduct that can be annoying, intrusive, intimidating, threatening and harmful. Victims may be followed or watched, or harassed with relentless unwanted tokens of affection or messages. Even behaviors that seem harmless, such as sending flowers or gifts, may be deemed important incidents, depending on the context.”

Under this definition, Uma Thurman was clearly stalked, and was right to be afraid.

Stalkers usually escalate their behavior. Most stalkers are obsessed with their victims and follow or watch their victim, trespass near their home or workplace, contact them with phone calls, emails, contact their family members and friends, and send deliveries they think of as gifts.

The impact a stalker can have on the victim can be devastating. There can be emotional, physical and financial ramifications. Victims fear they are in danger, they feel insecure and vulnerable, and they can become engulfed by fear. They often have to move, quit jobs, change names, and change their appearance.

Early intervention is key
What should you do if you suspect you are being stalked? The key is early intervention. You must contact law enforcement and report each and every incident. Build your case. Document it.  Keep a journal with detailed notes as to time and date and place. Help collect evidence.  But most importantly, avoid ALL contact with your stalker. Any response, even a negative one, encourages the stalker.

For more information, consult the New York State Attorney General’s Web page about stalking.  It helps explain what to do if you suspect you are being stalked.

Thurman’s stalker faces up to a year in prison if he is convicted, which it sounds like he will be based on media reports of the trial. But Thurman’s father has said Jordan needs to be treated, not incarcerated.

John Lennon was murdered by his stalker. Former President Reagan was shot by Jodie Foster’s stalker to get her attention. Stalking escalates, and intervention is necessary to stop it.

Take stalking seriously. Protect yourself. Get help.

Susan F. Filan, Esq. is an MSNBC senior legal analyst. Prior to joining MSNBC, Filan worked as a prosecutor and trial lawyer for the state of Connecticut.