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Continued: Attorneys-at-risk in Family Court

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN and ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Last update: July 18, 2010 - 11:05 PM

Frantic messages filled Terri Melcher's cell phone. One warned her to leave her office immediately.

But by the time the Fridley attorney heard it, she had been stabbed nearly 30 times in her unlocked office. Her alleged assailant was a man who had just lost a child custody case in which Melcher represented his ex-wife.

As word of the stunning attack last month spread in the Twin Cities family-law community, lawyers expressed horror, but not complete surprise.

"The emotions that come in Family Court are as raw as any a judge or lawyer is going to see," said Hennepin County Judge Kevin Burke, who has been on the bench since 1984 and is now stationed in Family Court.

Sheikh Nyane, 32, who was charged with assault and attempted murder in the case, admitted to police that he was upset because Melcher represented his former spouse in the proceedings, according to a court document.

On the day Melcher was attacked, Nyane allegedly told his ex-spouse that "he was ready to die and I'm going to take somebody with me," Melcher said.

During the assault, her attacker was going full tilt, Melcher said, but she managed to scream for help as she felt the knife jabbing at her throat.

Desperate and bleeding badly, she uttered that she wasn't trying to hurt him. For some reason, she said, he stopped and said, "You're not going to die today," and walked away. Nyane turned himself in to police 40 minutes later, knife in hand.

Nyane, who called the Star Tribune from the Anoka County jail after an interview request, said his attorney advised him not to comment.

At a court hearing last week, he didn't enter a plea, and he was assigned a public defender. Melcher, surrounded by a dozen relatives, attended. She said seeing Nyane was nerve-wracking. He made eye contact with her, she said.

During a previous court hearing, Nyane's arms were wrapped in bandages. It's unclear if he tried to hurt himself or he was cut during the attack, said Anoka County Sheriff Capt. Brian Podany.

Melcher, 54, has been recovering at home. In a recent interview, she appeared remarkably calm recounting the attack, which resulted in partial paralysis of the right side of her face, an injury that should heal, she said. Her orbital bone was broken, a temporal artery was severed, and she was stabbed repeatedly in the face and body. She lost half her blood before hours of surgery saved her life.

Melcher can only speculate why she became a target of violence.

There were no red flags during the divorce proceedings, she and others said. Nyane fought for joint custody of his nearly 3-year-old son. In court, he voiced anger over Melcher's insistence that the couple set up a court-ordered parenting visitation schedule that initially prevented him from seeing the boy for a month, she said.

Nyane and Tammy Kane-Nyane were married in May 2006. They separated two years later, and in June 2009, she obtained a six-month restraining order after he allegedly came to her workplace and made threats over their son.

But the couple shared in his upbringing, and the child had a close and loving relationship with each of them, Referee Mary Madden wrote in her divorce judgment June 2. The restraining order wasn't a factor in Kane-Nyane receiving sole custody, Madden said.

Kane-Nyane declined to comment. Repeated calls to Christine Cassellius, Nyane's divorce attorney, weren't returned.

In Burke's view, custody battles are among the most painful of court cases. Asked if they are more troublesome than murder cases, he said, "easily. ... You end up with 'My life's out of control, someone I loved has betrayed me, I'm going to lose my kids.' The pain in this building is significantly greater than in the government center," where criminal trials are held.

Just how common or rare it is for a family lawyer to be attacked is unclear. The American Bar Association doesn't track such statistics, and one official said the organization wouldn't comment because of concern about copycats.

Violence between the parties in a divorce is the more common concern, said Joani Moberg, a partner at Larkin Hoffman Attorneys and a family lawyer. "There are a few clients where if something happens to them, it wouldn't shock us, and we would be naive if we didn't think it could spill over to us," she said.

Melcher doesn't describe herself as a no-holds-barred attorney. Her final letter to the court in this custody case was detailed and well-organized without inflammatory language. Melcher's clients always get good representation and she doesn't burn bridges advocating for them, said Anoka County Judge Sharon Hall.

"She's always respectful to opposing counsel and their clients," Hall said.

Hall talked to Madden, who said she didn't see any signs of potential violence during the three-day divorce trial. Only about 5 percent of divorce cases go to trial, Hall said.

How the attack went down

The attack on Melcher occurred on a Friday afternoon, a time when she typically sends her staff home and works alone. June 11 was no different.

Tammy Kane-Nyane planned to meet Nyane later that day and give him their son for weekend visitation, and Melcher spoke to her about that.

About 4:15 p.m., Melcher got a call from Cassellius, Nyane's attorney. She told Melcher she had confidential information and suggested that "cars with the little red lights" be on the scene during the visitation exchange, but she wasn't more specific, Melcher said. "I should have read between the lines," she said.

Melcher then phoned Kane-Nyane, who said she had just received the chilling message from her ex-spouse, Melcher said.

A few minutes later, according to police, Nyane walked through Melcher's door, shouting, "You're not going to mess with me anymore. I'm going to kill you."

Melcher didn't know it, but after her previous call, Cassellius had left a message warning her to get out of the office immediately.

Nyane started stabbing Melcher, a two-inch tip of the knife breaking off in her skull, according to the charges. That actually may have saved her life because it prevented penetrating stabbing motions, said Assistant Anoka County Attorney Andrew Johnson.

Melcher backed over office furniture and tumbled over boxes as she tried to defend herself, she said.

Melcher tried to call 911, but Nyane stopped her, she said. She hit him with the telephone and gouged his eyes.

The attack ended after her comment about not trying to hurt her assailant, Melcher said. Fridley police, stationed less than 100 feet from her building, arrived within a minute of her subsequent 911 call.

"I still can't believe I survived," she said. "During the attack, I had this awful vision of dying too young."

A recent visit to the office "felt eerie," she said. She is pretty sure her days of working alone are done, but she is definitely going to practice law again, she said.

Anoka family law attorney Bob Howard said he can't imagine what Melcher has gone through, but "if it was me, I might find a different line of work."

Melcher acknowledges that in family law "you see people in the worst stages of life," but she said she got into it because she sees how her work improves people's lives. She joked that nobody likes the attorneys of ex-spouses. Such attorneys get the chance to speak words for their clients that they couldn't say to their spouse, and they do it in public, she said.

"What happened to me should have never happened," she said. "The whole thing isn't rational."

dchanen@startribune.com • 612-673-4465

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