There is no doubt among rational folks: Domestic violence is a scourge on our society, does long-lasting harm to victims and is a significant drain on our resources.
With that said, I pose the following question to you: To what end should the criminal justice system push prosecution and force reluctant victims and witnesses to testify?
Perhaps some background is in order. For the better part of the last 25 years, there has been a concerted effort among many entities to bring more attention to the seriousness of the problem and potential lethality of domestic violence — as we did with drunk driving in the 1980s.
It took many years and considerable effort by many, but domestic violence has now become a much greater priority in the minds of law enforcement and lawmakers. All aspects of the criminal justice system receive regular training and updates in domestic violence laws, procedures and protocols. Our state Legislature also continues to address domestic violence with passage of new laws.
Herein lie the questions: How forceful should we be in going after abusers, and how do we treat victims who do not cooperate?
As part of my duties, I make it a point to speak to every victim of domestic violence in Sagadahoc County. My goal is to interview the victim and known witnesses to verify allegations within the police report and uncover additional information relevant to the case. As a fact finder, I am also required to identify and report information that contradicts any allegations.
After this initial contact with the victims, my role changes significantly. In our office, I next take on the role of victim advocate for cases involving domestic violence. I don’t mind telling you it hasn’t always been a fun ride. Matter of fact, these two roles often come into conflict as I serve to both investigate and prosecute offenders while supporting the victims of the abuse. The conflict arises when victims do not wish to proceed with prosecution.
Our judicial system is one of accountability, with punitive sanctions upon conviction. If our system must hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, what about the victims? If the police respond and initiate an arrest, and the district attorney’s office prepares to prosecute, what do we expect from the victim?
Our system does not require victims to declare they want to press charges before cases are prosecuted. Inversely, we do not allow victims to come forward to say they want charges dropped. It is reassuring, however, knowing victims support prosecution and will be there when and if they are needed during the life of the case — as their involvement is often critical to a successful prosecution.
Yet many victims who do not wish for a criminal case to go forward. We have had victims go so far as to hide to avoid subpoenas. They have also hired their own attorneys to interfere with prosecution.
Victim usually have a rationale for their stance. The abuser may be the breadwinner and the source of the victim’s economic survival. Or the abuser may manipulate the victim from within jail to not help the case. Law enforcement and prosecution exist in a black and white world, while domestic abuse is often shrouded in various shades of grey.
To what end do we encourage, threaten or even incarcerate victims, so they cooperate? What is the obligation of prosecution in dealing with serious cases of domestic violence, knowing the perpetrator is likely to walk free and offend again if we dismiss a case?
There is no hard and fast rule to determine how far prosecution will resort to maintain the presence of the victim of a crime. In most instances, it comes down to priorities.
Prosecutors must evaluate each case and decide what and how many resources they should expend on any one case. One factor to be considered is the likelihood of getting a conviction, which is routinely weighed by the victims’ availability and willingness to participate in the process. Even if a conviction is likely after trial, are the potential sanctions sufficient to warrant taking the case to trial?
Each prosecutor took an oath to uphold the laws of Maine. At the same time, they use what is called prosecutorial discretion practically every day when screening cases, deciding what cases see the inside of a courtroom and those that do not. One of the prosecutors I work for lamented there is no formula. It simply boils down to a decision based on various factors.
In an ideal world, all victims would stand tall and support the prosecution of those who abused them. Sadly this is not the case, and far be it from me to judge them. The burden however, falls on those sworn to hold violators accountable and prosecute offenders with the added pressure of societal expectations.
Ultimately, the case goes where and as far as the evidence and strength allows. You decide if it is far enough.
Steve Edmondson, who has served 36 years in law enforcement, is the domestic violence investigator for the Sagadahoc County District Attorney’s Office in Bath. He was appointed by Gov. John Baldacci and Gov. Paul LePage to serve on the Maine Commission for Domestic and Sexual Abuse.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.