TRI-CITIES, TN/VA – (WJHL) – Washington County isn’t the only court system that occasionally puts domestic violence victims in jail. The rare, but severe punishment for victims who disobey subpoenas, is taking place in Sullivan and Greene counties too.
We found more than a dozen cases over the last year in Washington County where victims of domestic violence failed to appear in court and ended up in jail, charged with contempt of court.
Advocates argue the courts shouldn’t force victims to testify, but prosecutors say they can’t convict the abusers without victims’ help. Police have a stake in this too, since domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous for officers when it comes to their response.
Greene County General Sessions Judge Ken Bailey says domestic cases are incredibly complex and serious. At times, he says that’s resulted in him occasionally holding victims in contempt of court.
“It’s very rare that they don’t show up, thankfully,” he said. “It’s not easy just to say, ‘Oh yes, they’re going to go to jail for 24 hours to 48 hours.’ I mean those are decisions that I struggle with and I’m confident other judges struggle with also.”
Subpoenas clearly remind victims in black and white that if they fail to show up to court they could face time behind bars, but advocates say many victims have good reason. Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence Executive Director Kathy Walsh says testifying can put victims in even more danger.
“It’s a terrible choice,” Walsh said. “Their safety or go to jail and that is not a position you want to put any victim of crime in.”
Walsh says it’s especially concerning, considering Tennessee already ranks sixth in the nation for the number of women killed every year by men, according to the Violence Policy Center’s analysis of 2013 homicide data.
“Did it surprise you to know this is happening to this extent?” we asked Walsh.
“Absolutely, it surprises me that this is happening anywhere,” Walsh said.
Walsh, a domestic violence survivor, says the more the court system jails abusers, the less often victims will want to call 9-1-1 in an emergency.
“If you have a thorough investigation from law enforcement, if they have evidence, if they have pictures, if they talk to other folks on the scene, there’s no reason you can’t prosecute these cases without a victim,” Walsh said. “Prosecutors do it all the time when you have a homicide.”
Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus says it’s not that simple.
“In some ways, a domestic violence case is harder to prove than a murder case, because many times in a murder there’s a body and a pile of evidence,” he said. “In many, many domestic violence cases, it’s a slap, it’s a hit, it’s in a room, it’s by themselves and then they leave.”
Staubus says there are rarely witnesses in domestic violence cases and the pictures of the victim’s injuries or a victim’s statement to police aren’t admissible unless the victim is in court to talk about them.
“You have to have in almost every case the victim to come forward and say, ‘I’m the victim. He hit me. He did it. I reported it and it wasn’t self-defense and it wasn’t accidental. He meant to do it to me,'” Staubus said.
“Is there not another way to prosecute a case without putting these women in this vulnerable situation?” we asked him.
“I don’t know of any way under the current laws and under the constitutional restraints that we have that protect defendants,” Staubus replied.
A person’s right, per the Constitution, to face and cross-examine their accuser in court is one of those protections.
Staubus reports there were six victims of domestic violence arrested in Sullivan County’s Bristol court within the last year for failing to appear. Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Emily Hutchins prosecutes cases in Bristol.
“If they feel that testifying is going to put them in danger, we do we everything we can to prevent that from being something they have to go through,” Hutchins said. “I always try to take into account what they want out of these cases, what would make them feel safe and make them feel that justice is being served, but at the end of the day, these are extremely serious crimes.”
In addition to that situation, Hutchins says if a victim’s failure to appear is the result of a transportation issue or a mix-up with the date, she asks the judge to not issue an arrest warrant.
Of the six Sullivan County cases, Hutchins says one woman, who spent two days in jail, actually came around after the judge held her in contempt, which led to her abuser going to jail too.
“She indicated that now she knew it was the best thing for her to come into court and hold him accountable, because her not coming to court showed him that she was not going to hold him accountable,” Hutchins said.
Back in Greene County, Judge Bailey says he has, at times, witnessed positive results too, but he says his decision to jail victims has also kept him up at night.
“They’re just difficult cases all the way around for everyone involved,” the judge said “I’ve been concerned that that victim is going to endure further abuse after the case has been heard in court…It is a horrible situation and it bothers me.”
The judge thinks more victim-witness coordinators in court would help the victims better understand their role in domestic violence cases and how the legal system can help them. He says better counseling can also ultimately help them get out of their current situation.
The Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence’s executive director says training is critical too. Walsh says the organization has trained more than 10,000 police officers across the state to investigate domestic violence cases so that they know there may be a reluctant witness.
“If you set up a response in which those victims end up getting arrested, because they don’t want to testify against the perpetrator, that really goes counter to everything we’ve been trying to do in Tennessee to encourage victims to reach out for help,” Walsh said. “This is a practice that actually goes counter to the laws that we have, to the training that we’re doing in Tennessee and places victims in greater danger.”
Although Johnson City officers receive domestic violence training, JCPD Chief Mark Sirois also believes victims are essential to prosecuting cases.
Our officers do receive training working with victims of domestic violence, both in basic law enforcement academy and ongoing training,” he said. “For many reasons, including the cycle of violence some victims find themselves in, there is a reluctance to move forward with prosecution in some cases. With prosecution of most cases, you need the cooperation of the victim.”
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