It's an upsetting story that's burning up the feminist blogosphere: A woman in Cowlitz County, Wash., who was allegedly kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend and forced by him to perform oral sex on another man, has been subjected to arrest and detainment by prosecutors, who were worried she would keep missing meetings and basically destroy the case. According to the local paper:
The 43-year-old woman—the victim and prime witness in the case—has not been charged with any crime. She just wasn’t showing up for pre-trial meetings with prosecutors, despite promising to do so several times.
So earlier this month they obtained a judge’s order for a material witness warrant.
It’s a little-used procedure under state law that allows police to arrest a witness of a crime to ensure they show up for court. Chief Criminal Deputy James Smith said such warrants are rare and requested only “as a last resort.”
The woman, who is homeless and who appears to have lied to prosecutors about staying with her parents, has spent one night in jail under the authority of the material witness warrant. Rebecca Rose of Jezebel is livid:
Let's call this what this is—this was a solution to save work for lawyers. Because with this move, they don't have to be bothered with a lot of pesky victim outreach. And don't tell me "well they probably tried to give her counseling and outreach." Well guess what? It clearly wasn't enough, because she was still terrified to continue with meeting with lawyers and being faced with sitting a courtroom and having to tell her story.
Rose’s outrage is understandable, but it seems naive to believe that all you need to work with victims of domestic assault is more outreach. (The charges are against the second man, but the boyfriend is the one who instigated the kidnapping, suggesting that the domestic violence framework is in play here.) Victims have minds of their own, and sometimes no amount of victim outreach or counseling will change their minds.
The victim's refusal to cooperate is a problem endemic to the prosecution of domestic violence, as I wrote in September. In Queens, N.Y., law enforcement reports that victims recant their testimony in 9 out of 10 cases. It's not necessarily, as Rose suggests, simply because they are so traumatized by the violence itself that rehashing it with prosecutors feels too overwhelming. Research shows that a victim’s refusal to cooperate with a prosecution is more about her relationship to the abuser. In this particular case, the victim has a long-standing history with one of her attackers, which suggests that she probably doesn't see this in the same way that someone kidnapped and assaulted by complete strangers would. While there are some interventions that can help reduce the problem of victims who recant out of these complex feelings, there's no silver bullet of counseling that will get all victims to see things the way prosecutors want them to.
The sad, unavoidable truth is that we have to decide what's more important to us: putting abusive men in jail or letting their victims opt out of cooperating with the prosecution as they see fit. Always erring on the side of victim sensitivity means putting some very bad men back out on the streets, where they will likely attack someone else. If that's the price that you feel is worth paying, OK, but it's also understandable that prosecutors might try to do everything within their power to convict a guy who likes tying women to chairs and assaulting them.
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