WASHINGTON COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – More than a dozen victims of domestic violence in Washington County, TN spent time in jail after they failed to appear in court to testify against their abusers, according to an exhaustive Community Watchdog investigation. Advocates for those victims are now demanding prosecutors put an end to the practice.
We’ve spent the last two months filing public records requests, reviewing criminal cases and jail logs going back roughly a year and concluded domestic violence victims are jailed the equivalent of at least once a month. Court records reveal these are the same victims who told police their abusers punched, choked, headbutted and spit on them.
Donna Oliver is one of the victims. She reported domestic abuse twice in a matter of just three months last year, but after her second call to 9-1-1, she eventually found herself looking right into the lens of a jail camera as it snapped her mugshot. Prosecutors charged her with contempt of court.
“That was one of the worst experiences of my life,” Oliver said. “I just thought, ‘Why? Why would you do that to somebody?'”
Prosecutors charged the other victims, all but one of them women, with the same crime. All of them received a subpoena, which is an order to appear in court to testify against their alleged abuser. Despite that court order, all of them failed to show up, which is a jailable offense.
Bill McManus says just because the law allows for their arrest doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. He represents one of the victims.
“She was arrested, had to post bond and then come up to court, miss work, end up in the Busted paper and everything,” he said. “It’s just wrong. Why are we going after domestic victims? It’s got to stop.”
Fellow defense attorney Patrick Denton shared a voicemail with us that one of his clients received from Washington County’s domestic violence prosecutor.
“As I was saying when you hung up on me, if you do not come in to the sheriff’s office or the justice center to be served with a subpoena for (the defendant’s) next court date…I will issue a contempt warrant to have you arrested for contempt of court for leaving before I subpoenaed you,” Assistant District Attorney Leon Marshall said. “You will be served with another subpoena. It’s up to you whether you get arrested and served with it in jail or you come in voluntarily to be served with it.”
Denton considers it a clear threat.
“We should expect more,” he said. We should expect those people to be protected rather than turned into defendants themselves. I mean, it’s kind of chilling. Here’s a woman that called the police, because she needed help and now a couple months later she gets a voicemail that says now you might be the one that’s going to jail. Think about that.”
Something else to consider, according to Denton, is the double-standard he routinely watches play out in court.
“How about police officers?” he asked. “They’re subpoenaed in every case. No one would ever suggest that if a police officer doesn’t show up under subpoena they should be held in contempt of court. They’d be laughed out of the courtroom.”
Defense attorneys say in the heat of the moment a victim will call 911 for help, but in the months after, when they have time to think about the consequences of that call, some victims will reconsider whether they want to move forward with a criminal case, so they choose not to testify. In the past, prosecutors would dismiss many of those cases, but not anymore.
“I think it’s an awful twisting of what we should expect,” Denton said. “Rather than second guess their decisions after the fact, we should give wide deference to what their wishes are. How paternalistic is it on the part of the government to think that they know what’s best for these women?”
“The policy re-victimizes predominately women who are very often with little or no resources to protect themselves,” defense attorney Gene Scott said. “Unfortunately, many of these people are unable to go forward with the prosecution for various reasons, including but not limited to, needing financial support from their abuser or being unable to miss work for court. That doesn’t minimize their need for police help at the time they call. This policy creates a very real threat that victims of domestic assault will not call for help when in need out of fear that they themselves will later be jailed. Additionally, very often these incidents occur between married couples, who after the fact, want to reconcile and do not desire to go forward with the prosecution. ”
Shocked by our discovery, Safe Passage Program Director Lynn Armstrong urged the justice system to allow victims to make decisions about what’s best for them. Armstrong says she’s supportive of prosecutors holding the abusers accountable, but says they’re going about it the wrong way by holding victims accountable too.
“It did catch me off guard,” she said. “It retraumatizes the victim. What’s the definition of abuse? It’s power and control, so who’s now taking the power and control over the situation?”
The domestic violence shelter manager argues forcing victims to testify will put them in danger. She says she knows firsthand. Her sister is a domestic violence survivor.
“It is deeply concerning that this could definitely endanger victims further,” she said. “I’ll say this much, had they forced my sister to testify against her husband, she and her children would be dead today. This is not fair to victims.”
Prosecutors won’t apologize for jailing some victims of domestic abuse
First Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark says the cases where victims are jailed are the equivalent of roughly 1% of the nearly 1,000 domestic violence cases he says his office prosecutes annually. As much as he says he doesn’t like putting victims in jail, he says prosecutors needed to send a message.
“To sit here and say I know what’s best for a victim, I don’t,” Clark said. “I know that for us to prosecute a case successfully on a domestic violence, or a bank robbery, or a rape or a robbery, or a murder, we have to have a victim. I’m not going to go back and apologize for what we’ve done, because I think we were doing the right thing. At some point in time, where do we draw the line in saying that we’re just going to dismiss these cases if a victim doesn’t appear?”
Clark says since his office started cracking down on victims about a year ago, more of them have started to show up to court. He believes the severe, but rare punishment, is in the public’s best interest.
“If we don’t as prosecutors do our job then I think that the increase of domestic violence cases and severity of domestic violence cases is going to happen,” he said.
Clark acknowledged the courts aren’t nearly as harsh on police officers, who are just as critical to cases. However, he says those officers are disciplined. He says sometimes a judge orders them to pay court costs and other times they are punished internally by their departments.
“There are already punishments in place for those individuals,” he said. “There’s other sanctions and other things that the judge does.”
Clark says his office desperately wants to prosecute the most serious abuse cases.
“We want that individual to come to court even if they don’t want to,” Clark said. “We want that individual to come to court to help us stop that cycle and it could be to prevent harm to them or another individual at some point.”
“If they are punched in the face, if they are spit on, if they are choked, is there not a better solution than putting these people in jail?” we asked.
“I’m glad you asked that Nate,” Clark said. “We are right now trying to work with the judges to see if we can do a contempt summons, instead of a contempt arrest. If we can get a person to come to court without having to arrest them for not coming to court, of course that’s what we want to do.”
A summons would avoid jail altogether and require victims to just appear before a judge in a courtroom.
“The issue could be handled differently than petitioning the court for an arrest warrant,” Scott said. “(With a summons) the victim could offer an explanation as to why they didn’t appear.”
It’s too late for Oliver. She says the damage is done. We were there last month as the state eventually dismissed her contempt case, but that decision came only after she spent several painful hours in jail.
“I’ve been a victim that’s been re-victimized,” Oliver said.
Oliver says she suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, prompted by years of abuse. While in jail, she says in the midst of a panic attack, she begged detention officers to let her take off her own clothes and to not put their hands on her.
“I was grabbed by both male and female guards, thrown down, (sprayed), had every ounce of clothing taken from me, even my glasses,” she said. “My knees were badly bruised. You could see grab marks all over my legs.”
Detention officers reported they used force and chemical spray, resulting in “very minor injuries,” after Oliver made suicidal comments and made an aggressive motion toward a nurse.
Clark insists the cycle of abuse that Oliver suffered at home, and other serious cases, are the kind prosecutors desperately want to stop.
“Do I think we’re re-victimizing victims? No I don’t,” Clark said. “That’s the cases that we most want people to come to court on.”
As for Oliver’s injuries in jail, both the state and Washington County Sessions Court Judge Robert Lincoln said she is the one to blame.
“That’s no fault of the state’s your honor,” ADA Marshall said in court.
“You brought yourself to the jail for your lack of following the court’s order,” Judge Lincoln said. “You were not here on the date that you were ordered to be here…You subjected yourself to your arrest by your noncompliance.”
Clark says he doesn’t think the rare practice will prevent victims from calling for help in the future. He also tells us before prosecutors started occasionally jailing victims, they tried to bring them to court on what are called “show cause” hearings, but he says defense attorneys fought that too.
Are you a victim of domestic violence? Here is a list of places that can help:
The Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-356-6767
Local agencies below:
Abuse Alternatives, Inc.
Bristol, TN 37620
Change is Possible (CHIPS) Family Violence Shelter
Erwin, TN 37650
Johnson County Safe Haven, Inc.
Mountain City, TN 37683
Safe House (Frontier Health SAFE House)
Kingsport, TN 37664
(844) 578-SAFE (7233)
Safe Passage (First TN Human Resource Agency)
Johnson City, TN 37605
The Crisis Center, Inc.
Bristol, VA 24201
The Crisis Center, Inc.
Bristol, VA 24201
Certified Batterers’ Intervention Programs
Abuse Alternatives, Inc.
104 Memorial Drive
Bristol, TN/Sullivan County, TN 37620
First Tennessee Human Resource Agency
704 Rolling Hills Drive
Johnson, Washington, Carter, Green, and Sullivan Counties, TN 37604
Certification expiration ends: 12/4/2017
Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence
2 International Plaza Drive, Suite 425
Nashville, TN 37212
Office: 615) 386-9406
Fax: (615) 383-2967
Toll Free Information Line: (800) 289-9018 (8 a.m. – 5 p.m. M-TR)
Statewide Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Hotline: (800) 356-6767
For more information, click here.