Thoughts After Going To Court For A Domestic Abuse Charge
There are few things more certain to deflate your trust in the legal system than witnessing it in action.
It becomes, the more you navigate the system, increasingly hard to continue convincing yourself that we are moving in the direction of justice. I find myself, after spending a single morning sitting outside a courtroom, wanting to shout
Is this really the best we can do?
The Back Story
I got a subpoena to appear as a witness in a domestic assault case. Back in November, just 3 months after moving into the basement of my house, my tenant physically assaulted his girlfriend with my children upstairs listening to the whole thing. My wife called me at work to tell me that the woman who lives downstairs was screaming repeatedly, and at the top of her lungs “Help me. Someone….please….help me.”
My wife- upstairs with a house full of children and 7 months pregnant asked me if I could come home and deal with the situation. I quickly rushed home and after checking with my wife to discuss what exactly was going on, I went downstairs and knocked on the door. The door opened a crack, enough for the boyfriend to stick his head out to greet me, but not enough for me to see into the apartment. “Hey. So my wife said she heard your girlfriend crying for help, is everything alright?”, I ask.
“Yep, everything’s fine.”, he says. He closes the door.
Wow. Really? Your girlfriend just finished screaming for help and the best you can muster is “Yep, everything’s fine”? Not “she dropped the couch on her foot while rearranging the living room and screamed for help”? No?
Not “she was practicing a rather loud and spirited tone-deaf rendition of the Beatles classic.”….Really? If you’re going to lie, go big or go home. I feel insulted.
Suffice it to say I called the police. Within minutes I had three cruisers on my front lawn, a shirtless tenant being stuffed in a cruiser, and my wife imploring me to make sure I’m outside in plain view so that the neighbors don’t think I’m the one getting arrested. A while after, his girlfriend is escorted to another cruiser visibly shaken. An officer takes my statement, my wifes statement, then thanks me and leaves.
The next day, an officer stops by to tell me that the Accused is not welcome at my address as a term of his release, and that I am to call the police if I see him there. He explains that the Accused has been charged with assault and forcible confinement, and we should expect updates through Victim Services. That night, I again knocked on my tenants apartment door. She answers, face swollen and bruised- deep purple shades changing to a light brown color like coffee with cream at the periphery. Her bottom lip bulges slightly, noticeably split. My heart breaks for this woman. I tell her that my wife and I want her to know that we understand that money might be tight for her the next little while- we don’t want her to worry- we are happy to be flexible if she wants to stay.
She never takes me up on the offer. Rent is always on time, always in full.
Months later I am visited by a nice lady in a police uniform. The patch on her arm reads “Court Services”, and she pulls out two subpoenas attached to her clipboard. He has decided to plead not guilty, and my wife and I are witnesses for the prosecution.
“He’s pleading not guilty?”, my wife says, “How can he plead not guilty?”, and I try my best to explain what I think is going on.
In Canada, thankfully, we don’t drop charges if the victim refuses to be cooperative. An uncooperative victim can make prosecution more difficult, but it doesn’t make it impossible. The most likely explanation is either he believes there is a procedural technicality (like grounds to enter the premises) or he is hoping to get a plea bargain by forcing the prosecutions hand.
My Day In Court
My subpoena says to be outside the courtroom by 9AM. My wife and I get there at about 8:45 with our two month old baby in tow. There are no police officers outside the courtroom when I get there. There are no lawyers. There is me, my wife, a couple that looks homeless, a guy with a poneytail that is dressed in a $10 Goodwill suit with a dress shirt frayed and worn at the collar, the woman who lives in our apartment, and her attacker- who is standing over her just three feet away as she texts on her phone. As soon as he recognizes us, he moves to a seating area further down the hall.
I say hello to her, she acknowledges me and continues staring at her phone. You can see her trying to keep her composure, the occasional sniffle pulling back the tears. A few cops start to arrive and start shooting the breeze in an interview room with the door open. One of them, loud enough for me to hear clearly, starts talking about beating the crap out of a guy he arrested that night.
It’s 9:15AM and the lawyers start slowly shuffling in. No one has spoken with me yet. No one has talked to her either. The homeless husband asks one of the lawyers when they are going to get into the courtroom. “At 9:30, sometimes it’s a little later than that”, he says. Un-fucking-believable.
Yeah. Now it’s 9:30- there are lawyers and clerks and police moving in and out of the courtroom like bees from a hive. No one has spoken with me yet. No one has spoken to the victim either. The Accused is finally getting a meeting with his duty council, they go into one of the interview rooms to talk. I look over at her, she’s starting to relax a little.
“Man, this is taking forever.”, I say, hoping to break the ice a little. She agrees, and she starts talking a bit. Turns out, she had called the prosecutor a few times hoping to get the conditions changed so that she could talk to her boyfriend before the trial. She never got a call back. She says that she thinks he can change- my wife is not impressed.
“People don’t change- don’t get your hopes up”, my wife interjects.
“That’s not true”, I say- my wife looking visibly displeased with me,”It is true that people can change. It’s that they change so rarely and not always for the better.”
Our tenant explains that when she spoke with the prosecution they had mentioned some of the sentencing options, which included anger management classes- which she thought was a good idea.
My wife is stewing.
It’s now 10:05 and a disarmingly handsome police officer walks up to our tenant. He invites her to come into one of the interview rooms to speak with a prosecutor about her statement and testimony. Still, no one has even acknowledged that my wife and I exist.
“What is wrong with that girl”, my wife asks, “and where the fuck are her parents?” My wife cannot believe what she is hearing. The next 10 minutes are spent talking about how anyone would let their daughter handle this alone, what could possibly bring someone to have such a skewed view of their own self-worth, and why the victim should be sitting alone for over an hour without anyone really giving a shit. I’m disturbed, but stoic- my wife is just trying to keep her cool.
It’s 10:25, and our tenant is coming back to her seat. She seems happier. She says that the prosecution has decided to accept a plea bargain. They are dropping the forcible confinement charge- he’s going to plead guilty to assault and with her approval sentence him to one year probation and six weeks of anger management classes. She seems to think this is a good solution. A police officer comes up to us (finally) and says “Thanks for coming, but you can go home now.”
What Just Happened??
Wow. I don’t know where to start…..
- Why are people subpoenaed for 9AM if no-one who works there shows up till 9:15, court doesn’t start till 9:30 (or later!), and nobody intends to be waiting there to speak with you? Did we subcontract court services to a Cable Television company?
- What, for the love of FSM, are people thinking when they ask a victim to be outside a courtroom at 9AM- with the fucking abuser there at the same time- without anyone there to police the situation??? He was standing right fucking over her!!! FUCK!!!! When my kids get in a fight, do I send them both to the same room-alone?
- Should we, as a society, give much thought to how a victim wants their abuser dealt with? If I wanted my attacker sentenced to death, would we pursue that? If I wanted a person who murdered my spouse to go free with a $250 fine, would the prosecution entertain that? No. sentences are not just about making right with victims, they are about sending clear messages about how society views certain behaviours. Victims should be consulted- but not to the degree that we empower abusers. If anger management and a year of probation is a reflexion of how society feels about domestic assault, how can we come to any other conclusion than the belief that we think it is more bothersome than wrong?
Am I being irrational here?