Local judges unsure best solution to solve domestic violence prosecution dilemma

WASHINGTON COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – Judges say they don’t know the best solution to solve the ongoing dilemma of prosecuting domestic violence cases in Washington County.

Our Community Watchdog investigation found, in rare cases, victims end up in jail for disobeying subpoenas. Advocates call the practice unacceptable. They argue forcing victims to testify if they don’t want to puts them in even more danger.

Prosecutors say without a victim’s testimony, it’s nearly impossible to convict a defendant, which leaves the victim and public at risk of more harm.

“It’s a tough decision. I don’t think there’s a right answer to it,” Washington County General Sessions Judge Robert Lincoln said. “The state’s having a hard time prosecuting these cases I’m starting to learn. I don’t have answer though.”

Judge Lincoln says his job is to ensure justice for everyone involved, including the defendant, who often spends a significant time in jail before his or her trial. The judge says that person has the right to confront his accuser, especially considering he or she is innocent until proven guilty.

“We have to look out for everyone, not just the victim, not just the accused, not just law enforcement,” he said. “There’s someone accused, but not convicted of a crime that’s gone to jail if it’s a domestic violence charge. There’s the orders of the court to be followed also and regardless who you are, if you don’t follow the orders of the court, then where do we go from there? Do we fall into anarchy?”

Washington County General Sessions Judge Don Arnold tells us in addition to justice, his goal is also to keep victims safe.

“When we’ve got those kind of cases and we don’t do justice or we don’t get to the bottom of it, I worry about reading the newspaper the next morning that there’s been a homicide,” Judge Arnold said. “I can’t protect them, I can’t do anything to punish the offender if they’re not in court.”

District Attorney Tony Clark previously told us he and the judges are discussing the idea of issuing summons in the future for victims who fail to appear. That would allow them to explain their absence in court, instead of an officer arresting them and taking them to jail.

“I don’t know what to do with it,” Judge Lincoln said “If people don’t come, citing them into court a second time, is that any better? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to it.”

Washington County’s domestic violence grant prohibits prosecutors from forcing victims to participate in criminal proceedings. However, that doesn’t preclude judges from forcing victims to testify. Judge Arnold, who says to his recollection he’s never held any victim in contempt of court, says he will weigh all sides if he ever finds himself considering it.

“In light of that grant, I don’t think the state’s going to often be asking for contempt citations now if they want to keep that grant,” Judge Arnold said. “That’s a decision General Clark and his prosecutors are going to have to figure out.”

“Does it bother you at all that victims of domestic violence have ended up in jail on contempt of court charges?” we asked.

“Well, I don’t like that. If they’re a victim, they’ve been through a lot. That’s a very difficult question to answer, because I don’t know why they don’t come to court. If they’ve got a good excuse, if they will convey that to me, I’m not going to issue any type of contempt citation against them, but to just blatantly ignore a subpoena and not appear in court, I’m not going to turn my back on that.”

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