Domestic violence charge casts shadow over judge’s race

MUSKEGON, Mich (AP) — A Michigan judicial candidate is facing domestic assault charges partly based on video footage suggesting he hit his girlfriend repeatedly with a belt, prompting local domestic violence advocates to actively speak out against his candidacy.

The candidate’s girlfriend and his attorney deny that he actually struck her.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Jason Kolkema was arraigned on the misdemeanor charges in mid-September. Kolkema, a 51-year-old attorney running for Muskegon County’s 14th Circuit Court judicial seat, contends he was striking a chair with a belt and not his girlfriend as suggested by the video shot by an office worker in a building neighboring Kolkema’s apartment.

“I understand that the optics are bad. I understand the anger and disappointment, especially from the people who voted for me and supported me … All of the facts will be revealed in due time,” Kolkema wrote on Facebook in response to a comment.

Kolkema has declined to comment to the newspaper, instead referring questions to his girlfriend. His attorney, Terry Nolan, told WOOD-TV in September that Kolkema did not strike his girlfriend and said the incident shouldn’t disqualify him from seeking a seat on the bench.

The woman, who is not identified in the Free Press reporting, told the newspaper she was wearing a headset and that Kolkema struck the chair’s armrest to get her attention. The woman said she took some blame for the incident, writing to the Free Press that “it was rude of me to ignore him.”

The newspaper found court and police records describing earlier violent confrontations involving Kolkema and his girlfriend.

One incident came two days before the videotaped belt strikes. According to Ottawa County court records, Kolkema allegedly spit at the woman’s 12-year-old daughter, threw water on them followed by a Gatorade bottle which missed them but hit a lamp.

Three months earlier, the woman reported to Fruitport police that Kolkema had slapped her. When officers arrived, the girlfriend recanted and Kolkema told police that she “gets like this when she is drunk … and makes things up.”

The woman told the Free Press that Kolkema has never hurt her or her daughter.

“He never beat me,” she wrote. “He’s not scary or threatening as a person … Just boisterous, animated.”

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson, whose office charged Kolkema with misdemeanor domestic assault in the filmed Aug. 18 incident, said it doesn’t matter if Kolkema actually struck his girlfriend that day.

“Domestic violence includes violence that can either be physical, or threatened,” he told the newspaper. “Contact is not required.”

Kolkema’s trial is not scheduled to begin until nearly two weeks after the Nov. 8 election. The footage and subsequent media attention have triggered intense debate in western Michigan.

“I cannot imagine a victim sitting in front of a ‘Jason Kolkema’ and asking him to protect her from an assailant,” said Muskegon resident Heather Fry, who is a domestic abuse survivor and victim’s advocate.

Whatever happened, the scene that unfolded on the video shows “a violent act meant to instill fear,” Fry said.

Supporters on Kolkema’s social media pages have offered support, saying that he deserves the presumption of innocence and that his life should not be destroyed for “one mistake.”

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