UPDATED: Shawn Nelson’s Completely Absolving Chris Norby of ANY Violence Goes Way Too Far

I get that Shawn Nelson is a longtime true friend of former Assemblyman Chris Norby.  But that doesn’t excuse everything Nelson does in defending his friend — and he has now gone way too far.

I’ve had a fair amount of respect for Board of Supervisors Chair Nelson over the past few years — especially given his ability to work with now-Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva when they were both on the Fullerton City Council.  He’s usually a fairly measured speaker, capable of thoughtful analysis.

I don’t have a fundamental problem — so long as Norby doesn’t do anything really stupid between now and his arraignment — with his having paid Norby’s bail.  I agree — as I wrote yesterday — that Norby deserves the presumption of innocence.

But Nelson has not stopped there.  He’s gone full-tilt “damn the facts” defense lawyer —  and he is really ticking me off.  If the story were still simply about Chris Norby, I might avert my eyes.  But Shawn Nelson’s comments on the Norby’s have made a large part of the story about Shawn Nelson — his character, his judgment, his ability to understand domestic violence from the perspective of an immigrant woman.  And, when we’re talking about the newly reelected Chair of the Board that controls Orange County, that story is fair game.


I’ve heard from various quarters today since this story went up.  One consensus seems to be that Chris Norby does not have a history of problem drinking.  One longtime friend told me that he sometimes looks like he’s drunk in public — and “drunk in public” is exactly the report that I’ve been getting about him for years — but that this comes from something other than substance use.  I can’t verify that from personal knowledge, but the responses I’ve gotten are consistent enough that I want to note it right up here.

I think that in focusing on the “does he drink” question, people may have been reacting to my inclusion of “have you seen them together when he’s drunk” among my “questions to Shawn Nelson.”  I want to be clear that none of those questions come from my having personal knowledge of the Norbys’ interactions, but from identifying factors that can make someone who seems like the nicest sweetest man in all outside social interactions turn into a batterer once it’s just him and his wife alone.  Use of alcohol, meth, or cocaine are just some of the factors that could plausibly reconcile Nelson’s positive perception of Norby as a friend with the possibility of serious violence at home.  But, of course, that something is plausible doesn’t make it true.

Among the people to whom I’ve spoken this afternoon was Shawn Nelson himself.  After talking to him, I can accept that he believes the “Chris Norby is a peaceful pussycat” narrative that he has offered.  (He could be spinning me; it’s not important for now that I drill down to a definitive opinion of the truth.  I just want to acknowledge that he himself did not set off my own BS detector.)  I remain in the “let the process work” camp regarding this case — and at this point I see no need to leave it.

Part of my criticism remains — and I think that it’s enough to justify the continued existence of this story even if I soften my criticism of Nelson himself.  (Again, what I read in his interview, prior to our personal discussion, was enough to send my BS detector spinning wildly; I make no apology for that.)  That criticism is this:

Even if the worst suppositions about Martha Norby were true — and I don’t subscribe to that conclusion — the notion that someone who asserts that they have been a victim of domestic violence is simply crazy and lying  has a horrible effect on women facing that personal hell.  In Nelson’s place — either while giving in the interview directly or as soon as I read the published interview — I would have wanted to emphasize the point that my evaluation was based entirely on the specifics of this situation, that in that respect I considered it to be a significant exception, and that I did NOT believe that it was generally appropriate to assert a defense that a given asserted victim was crazy.

To my surprise and satisfaction, Nelson agreed with me.  We talked a bit about domestic violence, our respective understandings of it, of the potential dangers of an exculpation such as his being broadcast without such a disclaimer, and how this had motivated me to write the story in the first place.  Our conversation had begun with an agreement to be off the record; when we reached this point of consensus I asked him whether I could draft this update and send it to him for his approval, so that we could jointly publish our hope that his remarks should not be taken to discourage women from reporting domestic violence generally due to fear of such a response.  As you’re reading this, he obviously agreed.

I don’t know how much good can be done by our jointly expressing our concern that his remarks could be taken as just another reason for women to decide that reporting domestic violence is futile — something that neither of us wants to see — but I think that I owe it to him, and especially to women readers who may have had that reaction to his comments, to clarify his actual view.  The balance of this story should be read with that in mind.

We now return to my originally, highly irritated, screed.

Shawn Nelson and Chris Norby

Maybe “a true friend is someone you can call at 3 a.m. to help you bury a dead body,” as the old joke goes — but even a true friend shouldn’t help you bury a live one.

Nelson has begun coming across as a real “male chauvinist pig,” completely dismissive of the realities of domestic violence.   He has moved beyond even-handed expressions of vouching for Chris Norby’s character to slashing attacks on the character of his fourth wife Martha Norby, who has accused the former Assemblyman of violence.  Nelson’s assertions that Chris Norby is himself simply incapable of violence, but is burdened by a violent and domineering harpy of a wife, can’t be justified by mere friendship — they verge on misogyny.  OC political figures going to have to be willing to take him to task publicly.  I’ll go first.

Supervisor Nelson, you have gone too far in your attacks on Martha Norby.  You are demonstrating a frightening lack of understanding of how domestic violence operates combined with a sickening lack of care for the truth.  I admit that the information I’ve received about Norby’s violent actions is secondhand, and I reserve judgment accordingly, but at least I tried to discover the truth.  Did you?  Did you try to get the names of the witnesses to the alleged 2010 attack?  Or do “true friends,” in your view, not inquire about such unpleasant things?

Your assertions about the impossibility of such violence is also secondhand: you simply cannot know that what you assert as truth is true.  You dismiss much of what we know of Chris Norby’s past — such as his drinking problems — and what we know about the involvement of problem drinking in domestic violence.  I’m not saying that Norby did what he’s accused of doing; I’m reserving judgment.  But the alleged actions are pretty clearly plausible.  If they were plausible, then you as Norby’s close and true friend should have intervened a long time ago — and now you should stop enabling him and trying to browbeat the world into pretending that there’s no basis for concern.

You don’t LIVE there, Shawn!  You’re not present in the marital bed and the master bathroom.  You’re not party to any domestic disagreements over finances or childrearing or fidelity.  You say that you don’t see anything in you’re friend’s history or behavior that makes domestic violence imaginable.  Well, you’re not having sex with him, Mr. Supervisor.  You’re not yoked to him financially.  You think that his wife is erratic — or at least more erratic than he is — for two main reasons: (1) because Norby presumably complains to you about her, and (2) because you see them together in public or private where he — the native speaker, the practices politician, the one who holds the household money and has the connections — may well be better able to compose himself than she can.

But you have no personal knowledge of what happens before you see them and of what happens afterwards.  You don’t know what’s hidden from those outside the family, Mr. Supervisor, because you’re not there.

Do you argue with him when he’s drunk, Shawn?  Do you know how he reacts?

Does he think that you owe him deference and obedience?  Do you know what he does when he doesn’t receive it?

Does he get upset if you embarrass him in front of his friends with a stray remark or an displeasing facial expression — or with complaints about his marital behavior?

These are some of the things that lead to domestic violence, Mr. Supervisor — the sort of things that don’t often crop up in men’s relationships with their male friends like you because he did not choose to make a life together with you.

You could have offered an evenhanded “I have no reason to believe that he did such a thing and I hope that we will all let the legal process sort things out.”  That’s the way I thought you would react.  But statements such as the one’s you’ve made — vicious and wholesale condemnations of Martha Norby’s character and sanity — are exactly the kind of public abuse that every woman who is a victim of domestic violence fears.

Women are reading your remarks right now, Mr. Supervisor; some of them are undoubtedly victims of domestic violence.  Attacks like yours, reinforcing the idea that men have the power to squash women if they step out of line, make victims of domestic violence more likely to suffer in silence.

That’s the lesson you’re teaching today.  Do you care about that?

Back to addressing you the Reader.  We’ll review Nelson’s own words — and the words of Martha Norby — below, but first let’s start with Norby’s own words about his wife and this dispute from yesterday’s initial Voice of OC article.

“I’ve never laid a finger on her.  I’ve been subject to abuse – physical, emotional and financial – over the past few years.  She’s extremely bipolar.”

“I’ve been protecting her on all this,” said Norby acknowledging previous incidents with police being called to their home. “I don’t wish her any harm but she’s caused a lot of harm to her family.  Filing a false police report is a very serious thing.”

When they had another argument this week, Norby said he thinks his wife panicked, thinking he would call police and alerted police herself instead.

Let me address myself to Mr. Nelson.  Like me, you’re an attorney; you’re supposed to have a working BS detector.  Well — does any of what you read above trouble you?

Here are three things about his comments that trouble me:

(1) We know that Norby is a large and strong man — loud, confident, and assertive.  We also know that he’s had a bit of a drinking problem over the years, leading him to do some odd things that I won’t recount here.  (I’ve heard you described as a drinking buddy, but I have no personal knowledge that that’s true.)  We know that Martha filed a complaint against him in 2010 — but that once he got wind of it, he and she had a little talk at home, and she went back to the police station and retracted the complaint.

Now he tells us that she’s been physically abusive, emotionally abusive, and financially abusive to him for years — but that he’s “never laid a finger on her,” despite that she’s “extremely bipolar” and therefore might at times need to be restrained from physically abusing him or their children.

It’s possible, I guess — but that’s not the way that I’d bet.  The easiest sort of denial is to accuse someone of doing whatever they say you’re doing.  And there’s a big red flag in his comment that suggests that he may be doing exactly that: the term “financially abusive.”

By “financially abusive,” I presume that he means to suggest something like that she was spending too much of his money, rather than putting rolls of quarters into a panty hose and swinging them at his head.  But, it’s funny, that’s not a term that I hear people use in that context.  “Financially abusive” usually means that one partner in a relationship — usually the wealthier, usually the man — uses control of financial assets to force the other partner to do his bidding by threatening to cut off access to money.  It got into his vocabulary in the context of domestic abuse somehow — so let’s consider a couple of scenarios.

(1)  Maybe Martha Norby has managed to seize control of all of the couple’s joint financial assets and is keeping him on a leash by only doling out as much money as he needs to get through a day.  Seem likely?  I didn’t think so.

(2) Maybe Martha Norby — not entirely fluent in English, kept home by the need to care for children without adult friends in the U.S. to rely on — does not have full access to her husband’s money and is therefore someone at his mercy.

Norby may assert, and Nelson may agree, that the first scenario is what’s going on.  I suspect that if one of them is occurring, it’s the second one.  We’ll see, I guess, when we compare the price tags on their divorce lawyers.

Or maybe the fact that the term “financial abuse” refers to the sort of domination imposed by many men in Norby’s position to many women like Martha.  (I’m also married to an immigrant woman with kids; she’s had full access to all but my one emergency credit card from the start of our marriage.)  Maybe Shawn Nelson can testify as to how Chris Norby reacted in public, or in private among friends, to her possible overspending.  (Nelson really can’t know how Norby reacted in the privacy of his intimate conversations with Martha.)

(2) Norby he says that he has been “protecting” this allegedly violent and bipolar woman?  How so?  When he talked her into retracting the 2010 police report, he was protecting her, because “filing a false police report is a very serious thing”?  What was he protecting her from?  Did he think that she might go to jail for perjury if she was exaggerating the force behind his push?  My BS detector is wailing at that one; why isn’t  Mr. Nelson’s?  And by the way — she may be bipolar and still be telling the truth.  Discounting someone’s statements because they’re bipolar is giving those around them a license to abuse them.

(3) But the notion that Martha panicked when they had another argument this week and then called the police before he could do so — that takes the cake.  Put aside for now the question of why the police felt that they had probable cause to arrest him and not her after they arrived — there could be an exculpatory explanation, but usually they’re using to their professional judgment as to what probably occurred– and put yourself in the shoes of Martha-as-depicted-by-Chris.

According to Chris Norby, Martha was abusing him routinely and extremely.  If this was such a big argument, we can presume that it included some such abuse.  But then someone goes too far — and, because Norby has “never laid a finger on her,” the person that he’d say went too far must be Martha.  That’s why she’d be afraid that he’d call the police — because he could show them that she did something wrong — right?

So, if that was the case — if there was any chance of his proving that she did something wrong to him — then why would she call in the police?  Maybe she could have tried to injure herself and blame her for the injury — but we’re told that there were no marks on her.  If she was trying to frame him, she’s pretty lousy at it.

Does Norby’s story of her preemptively calling the people who, if he’s right, might have had good cause to arrest her really seem more likely than the straightforward story that she called the police because he was in some way threatening her?  Doesn’t the police tacking on a child endangerment charge make that more likely?

Now, I want to be fair here.  Is it possible that Norby’s strange and convoluted story is true?  At this point, sure it is.  Is it probable?  Is it so probable that one could dismiss any alternative — calling any other version of what happened impossible?  I really don’t think so.

And yet, behold what Supervisor Nelson, fully brandishing his beautiful defense attorney plumage, had to say about a possible incident of domestic violence:

Nelson … [said] family friends have had concerns about his wife and witnessed instability and physical abuse for some time.

When asked if Norby abuses his wife, Nelson was adamant.

I know he doesn’t.  No way.  His biggest mistake is that Chris has too good a heart and doesn’t know when to leave a relationship.  I know Chris to be the most humble soul.  He’s a lot of things. But he is not a violent guy.”

Nelson continued: “I’m in an awkward spot.  I know what’s going on and the only option is to make it look like I’m picking on his spouse … but I know, and when I say I know, tensions flaring is not an uncommon occurrence, and it’s consistent that it’s one sided, and it does not involve Chris.  And I think Chris has done far more to hang in there because he has a child than I would.”

(My emphasis throughout.)

My reading that, by the way, is when I got ticked off enough to write this article — and the more I’ve thought about it the more indefensible those comments seem.

Nelson — and his wife or girlfriend (I think that he’s married but I don’t recall when) — despite knowing this, never intervened?    Even after the 2010 charges were filed, they couldn’t see where this was going and they never tried to head it off?

You know, if she’s bipolar, they have medications for that now.  Did the Nelsons ever discuss that with them?  Did Martha, like most other bipolars (if she is one), ever show remorse for the behavior Nelson alleges, offering them an opening for him to protect his friend?

“Tensions flaring,” we’re told, was “not uncommon” — but, as Nelson tells it, brash and successful politician Chris Norby always just sat there, while she abused and belittled him in front of company, like a big-hearted humble bowl of marshmallow fluff, for years — and he never even lost his temper once?

I think that Mr. Nelson laid on that coat of whitewash a little thick!

He’s right about two things, though: it looks like he’s picking on Norby’s spouse — and he’s in an awkward spot.

Here’s what Martha Norby had to say when she finally spoke to the Voice of OC:

“My husband has the bipolar,” she said. “He’s a very mean father, very bad father. He always calls me ‘fucking bitch.’ I don’t know why I married him.”

Martha Norby said she wasn’t violent toward her husband. Instead, she said, “sometimes he hit me. Sometimes he bite my finger. He’s a verbal abuser and a mental abuser.”

… She said that in the past she has sought psychological help for the children.  “My kids have too much trauma,” she said. “I love my kids. I’m a very good mom.”

… She said Norby was turning her older children against her, encouraging them to be verbally abusive. Among other things, she said he makes fun of the way she speaks.

“I go file for divorce,” she said. “I go find a job.”

Here’s what I’d love to see Supervisor Nelson asked under oath:

Have you ever heard Chris Norby speak abusively, using terms like “fucking bitch” to Martha?

Have you ever heard him make fun of the way she speaks?

Have you ever heard him encouraging her older children to be verbally abusive towards her?

What marks, bruises, or other injuries have you personally seen on Chris Norby since he married Martha?

And that’s just the start, off the top of my head.

As I’ve commented elsewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised if Martha Norby recanted her testimony — not because she was knowingly lying but because “file for divorce” and “go find a job” is a lot harder for a woman married to a successful and influential man — one who has adopted her three children without him and may have control over their finances (that’s my speculation) — than she may think.  You may have read about the concept of “financial abuse” somewhere — and it does happen.

True accusations in domestic violence cases get recanted all of the time — because women are protecting their children or because they can’t stand the economic burden of seeking justice.  (Note: in wealthy communities such as most of OC, women are much more likely to be able to hold their own — so if you’re thinking of people you know in Newport Beach and Coto de Caza and thinking that this assertion is wrong, please realize that wealthy Orange Countians are likely to be atypical.)

It’s a similar dynamic to the one currently in the news about sexual violence in the military — complaining about it just rarely pays off, so women generally don’t.  And that leads to a sick system.

I’ve left the DA’s race out of this post until now, and all I’ll say about it now is this that I would be happy if the votes in June sort out this way:

Those who think that it’s obvious, based on the above statements (Nelson’s included) that Chris Norby did nothing wrong, can vote for my opponent, the one who didn’t inquire further once the complaint was recanted in 2010 — but:

Those who are not completely convinced that his actions were benign — and who think that prejudging his innocence is as uncalled for as prejudging his guilt — would vote for me.

I don’t know what I’d ultimately conclude — again, I think it needs thorough investigation — but I would not sweep it under the rug.  And like most prosecutors, I’d delve a little deeper before rejecting recanted testimony in a domestic violence situation where the fate of children are at risk.  Because people may recant out of fear.

As for Supervisor Nelson: I’m sure that his statements about this matter will be long remembered.  Chris Norby may not really have been primarily interested in protecting his wife all these years — but Shawn Nelson certainly seems primarily interested in protecting Norby right now.

Yes, I get is — he’s being a true friend.  But he’s also a major political leader in our county.  His duty to the public — including to the many women and girls who are watching this scenario play out — should trump his duty as a too-loyal friend.  He should at least stick to conclusions within his competency to reach.  That’s not what a criminal defense attorney does, I know — but it’s what we should be able to expect of a leader.

The story right now is not just about what kind of husband Chris Norby is.  After that interview, it’s also about “what sort of a leader is Shawn Nelson?”

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)