Thoughts After Going To Court For A Domestic Abuse Charge

Posted on March 14, 2012. Filed under: Atheist Ethics, Canadian Politics, Personal, Politics, Social Justice |

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…..

  1. 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?
  2. 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? 
  3. 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?

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12 Responses to “Thoughts After Going To Court For A Domestic Abuse Charge”

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Am I being irrational here?

Technically? Yes, you’re being irrational. You’re expecting rational treatment from a government and justice system that is rooted in a patriarchal tradition where domestic abuse is Someone Else’s problem. You’re also expecting a battered woman, who apparently has nobody to offer her support and has relented to being in a relationship where she is at the very least emotionally and physically dominated by her boyfriend, to exercise rational thinking.

The feeling I get from the justice system is that their view is something like: as soon as the screaming stopped, you should have minded your own damned business. “Traditional Values”, just like in the 1950’s dontcha know? It would have been easier for everyone involved.

That said, I have to offer you my deepest respect. Confronting your tenant for attacking (and possibly killing? It’s hard to tell from your story) his girlfriend must have been an incredibly difficult thing to do. That’s a situation where you absolutely have no idea what could happen after you knock on the door to ask what happened. I probably would have just told the wife to call the cops and rushed home to meet the police at the door.

The whole issue of domestic abuse (and the legal system’s answer to it) is complex, baffling, and infuriating, all at the same time.

Sounds just like the US. Same thing. Was subpoenaed three times, each time losing more than three hours of my time; two visits turned into simple resets (see ya in two weeks) both times with the defendent’s lawyer not showing up until late–but one time both lawyers and deputies were there at 9 am. And I actually got called to the witness stand. What a surprise–it was finally over.

BTW, I had to swear to the ending of “so help you god.” I didn’t like saying “I do” but I didn’t want to embarrass myself or hurt the case if I caused a problem. If it ever happens again, what should I say? And why would I need a god helping me to tell the truth? Am I not dependable/reliable without his help?

Christine, Gardena, CA

Actually Christine, though I was never actually needed, I was a little concened that I was going to be required to swear a religious oath. I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to approach me before hand to ask what my religious views were, or if I was going to be faced with a real dilemma.
I can tell you that I would have rather had to face that dilemma than lose all faith in the justice system- which is how I feel right now.

Thanks for commenting- I hope you come back again!

1. People are subpoenaed for 9 because 2 out of every 3 people are late to every single appointment they ever make, and it’s more efficient to inconvenience the few who are punctual than to inconvenience everyone involved by expecting people to be on time. (Although it would make more sense, these days, for courts to set up some kind of automated “call or text this number by 9 AM if you will not be present at 9:15” and use it to create more fluid scheduling.)

2. If you waited 5 months before sending your kids to their rooms, you probably wouldn’t have any objection to them going to the same room either. It’s not like they just pulled the guy out of your basement an hour before. And it’s also not like the place wasn’t crawling with cops, either.

3. In most cases, the victim is the only witness to the abuse. You and I may think it’s incredibly stupid for a victim of domestic violence to want the abuser to get off scot-free, but it happens anyway. If we started forcing harsher penalties for domestic violence, then chances are good these stupid victims would simply “forget” that anything ever happened, and the abusers would get off with no punishment at all.

Vicar, thanks for commenting.
A few things:
1.How difficult would it be to have at least one person there at 9AM to greet those of us who are courteous? Really?
2. My child analogy fails as all analogies do. My children don’t forcibly confine each other and beat each other black and blue. My children, in other words, have no reasonable reason to be fearful of each other. Maybe unsupervised contact on the trial date is business as usual only when they are aware that the victim is sympathetic and forgiving of the accuser, but maybe not. Maybe they have assessed that there is “zero risk” with this abuser and acted accordingly. Those seem like postulates with little chance of being true, but I concede that it is not impossible. I report, you decide.
3. In this case, you have a person who heared the act, police who attended the scene, and I assume photos of the victim taken shortly after the assault. Maybe the forcible confinement charge is a stretch without her testimony, but I can’t see how assault is not a slam dunk. They don’t need her testimony. I would rather send a clear message that society does not tolerate domestic abuse than just hope a minor inconvenience will deter future chronic abuse. Maybe that would just make the abuser more careful in the future, but so does any law. Besides, domestic abuse almost by definition is a crime in private with few to no uninvolved witnesses.

1. Depends on what you mean by that. If you mean “having a person right outside your courtroom”, then that’s pretty damn difficult, because it means every single courtroom has to have such a person, and that runs into money. If you mean “there should be some kind of central receptionist to direct people”, then odds are there already is one; every government-related building I’ve been in has had one, at least, although I’m in the U.S. so maybe Canada doesn’t do that. In any event, the system they have seems to be working, since everyone got there in time for the trial; there’s a somewhat trite saying about not fixing things which aren’t broken.

2. You’re acting as though the courtroom is “just another location”. It isn’t. You’ve already indicated that there are police around. The situation isn’t “zero risk” because the abuser could be truly insane, and jump on the victim and start beating them again. Yes, okay, I agree: that’s dangerous. But with police within immediate reach AND the ability for the victim to step into the hallway (or whatever) I don’t think there’s any significant risk if the abuser isn’t actively insane.

3. Two reasons not to do what you’re asking come to mind. First, if abusers were given different legal treatment based on circumstances beyond their control, that would be a miscarriage of justice. They may be criminals, but they are still people, and they have rights. Remember: when rights are taken away, they are taken away from all of us, not just from criminals — anyone can be falsely accused of a crime, and I have a feeling that if, say, someone were to accuse you of pedophilia or something, you would not find it congenial to have all your rights removed before you even had a trial. But also: there is already enough incentive for abusers to avoid allowing witnesses. Giving them a potential reduced sentence if and only if they manage to prevent anyone but the victim from being a witness is a very perverse notion, and that’s exactly what would happen if your complaint were acted upon.

So you don’t think that forcing a victim to hang out with their abuser unsupervised is a bad thing? a friend of mine was abused by his boyfriend for years. Sexually, physically, emotionally. They have to be in the same room for custody hearings and it clear that this ‘man’ still scares the crap out of him. Domestic abuse is generally concurrent with rape and emotional abuse. Yet you seem to think witness intimidation is okay because it might cost too much, or contravene HIS human rights. Okay.

I understand that you are trying to be the pragmatist here, but it seems to me that your attitude is that “we should just admit defeat”. I don’t want to claim that the justice system can be perfect- it cannot. But becoming an apologist for things that need to change is wrong as well- the need remains without the will.

I thought my post was relatively clear: We arrived just before 9AM to see the accused hovering over the victim three feet away. There were no police officers. There was no court staff. There were a few people, but no staff. The police officers were in after we had been there for quite a few minutes, and the staff several minutes after that. I am relatively certain that the victim was not interested in testifying before she came, but that doesn’t mean that a future victim who has resolved to testify will not be unduely pressured by an accused if this is the status quo.
If a victim or witness is summoned to be there at 9AM there had better be someone there to give them a sense of security. I’ll pay the extra $1/month on my tax bill. As a society, we don’t have the right to value justice if we are not prepared to defend it. How many victims and/or witnesses are potentially intimidated by an accused who is permitted to intimidate through our inaction?

It’s not enough that people just “show up”- they should feel secure and safe.

I would like you to defend your position regarding point (3). For clarity, my position is that we should not persue plea bargains for crimes that, as a society, we wish to rightfully condemn if that plea results in a sentence that is incongruous with the crime committed- regardless of the wishes of the victim. I don’t see what you are seeing here. It is not insensitive to the rights of criminals to seek redress consistant with the wrongs they have perpetrated. I’m not asking for the death penalty here- I’m asking for an anambiguous message. Beating your spouse and terrorizing them does not equate with a year of probation. People who steal copies of “Catcher in the Rye” get a year of probation. People who break a pane of glass in a store because a salesperson was rude get six weeks of anger management and a year of probation. We aren’t talking about general anti-social behaviour here. I’m saying that if there exists sufficient evidence to prosecute to a more just settlement, then we should not be shy to spend our resources to send what I hope is a unified message: Violence, terrorism, and intimidation will not be tolerated, society has had enough.

What you experienced is quite typical for cases like you describe. However in my state the victim is assigned a SV support person who provides education and support through the whole process. As a witness your ONLY importance is your testimony. Settlements pre trial happen all the time and witnesses are often late and sometimes a number of cases are stacked. Also I’m distressed to hear anger management was offered because there is no evidence its effective. Batterers treatment is another thing and there is evidence for its effectiveness.

It has been my (albeit limited) experience that abusers tend to think that they don’t have anger issues, and that the victim forced their hand.

As to everything else you mentioned, I don’t feel I have an overblown sense of my own importance. My concern was primarily for the victim and the unsupervised interaction with the accused- whether it was welcome or not. She was, as I mentioned, also ignored for over an hour outside the courtroom.

Sounds like the judicial system here. When I worked as a Deputy Sheriff and was assined to the courthouse, I would see that all the time. The only difference I see in your story and my experience is that both yours and our (in my state) say to be at the courthouse at 9 am, except your procedings started at 10, whereas ours start at 10:45-11:15.

No. Domestic abuse frequently escalates until the person is killed. The victim frequently exhibits a form of stockholm syndrome, because the perp is often a charming sociopath.

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