WARNING: This story contains audio of a 911 call made by children. Since kids are involved, we are withholding the names of both the abuser and victim.
Despite a previous warning, the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office sent another domestic violence victim to jail recently for refusing to help prosecute her abuser. The decision occurred nearly two years after our investigation resulted in a call for prosecutors to stop jailing victims.
Washington County court records show just last month, the same prosecutor behind some of the previous jailings asked a judge for a material witness bond against a victim subpoenaed to appear in court in an aggravated assault case. The woman, according to court records, refused to testify against her abuser and refused to let her daughters testify.
The subsequent court order resulted in the woman getting booked into jail.
“Being handcuffed like I had done something wrong and I didn’t do anything wrong, I felt was more traumatizing than anything I went through that night,” she said.
As a result of the order, the woman appeared at the man’s trial. However, during the trial she invoked her Fifth Amendment right, refusing to answer questions that could incriminate her and that would’ve likely resulted in much different answers than what she originally told police in 2016.
Her 9-year-old daughter called 911 in August 2016.
“We need you here right now,” the frightened girl said, according to the 911 call. “My dad, he’s just being weird right now and he’s trying to kill my mama.”
A Washington County Sheriff’s Office police report shows the man, fueled by alcohol, placed his hands around his girlfriend’s neck “several different times, obstructing her airway.” Pictures taken by investigators show the woman’s injuries. According to the report, “the suspect made threats towards her advising he could take her out easily.”
Records show the woman failed to initially appear for his preliminary hearing and then indicated she would not be at the trial as well.
“If we don’t go, the case will be dismissed,” she said, according to court records.
Kathy Walsh is the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. She believes any practice that forces a victim to testify against an intimate partner only puts that victim in more danger of future abuse.
“I think it’s outrageous that you would put a victim through that,” she said. “If you’re a victim of crime you shouldn’t be forced to do anything. A victim should not be put in a position where they have to choose between their safety and going to jail.”
District Attorney Ken Baldwin defended the decision.
“The intent of the District Attorney’s Office is to hold offenders accountable for their actions,” he said in a statement. “It is the priority of any prosecutor to ensure the safety of victims, no matter what crime has been committed. Should a case have the same circumstances as the one in question, the result would be the same in requesting the issuance of a material witness bond.”
As our 2016 investigation found, Washington County’s past rare practice of jailing victims violated its federal domestic violence grant. As a result, the state warned the practice could jeopardize grant funding, saying it isn’t allowed and compromises victim safety.
The prosecutor responsible for the recent development is no longer funded by that grant, so a spokesperson for the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs said Washington County is not in violation.
Judge Lisa Rice signed the order in the recent case.
“It is protocol if a witness is served with a subpoena it is a court order to appear,” she said. “If any witness does not appear after proper service they can be held in contempt after the proper procedures are followed.”
In this case, officers booked the victim into jail and the judge quickly released her on her own recognizance without ever charging her with a crime.
Since 2016, the DA’s office has maintained a victim’s testimony is crucial to securing convictions and sending repeat violent offenders to prison.
In this case, it turns out prosecutors did not need the victim’s testimony. While she pleaded the Fifth Amendment, a jury found her boyfriend guilty of two counts of aggravated assault. He will be sentenced on June 1.
The victim, who still lives with the man and said he hasn’t harmed her in any way, said she never wanted it to get to this point. She said the situation’s impacted her family, since he hasn’t been able to find a job since.
“He is the father of my three kids and I love him,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be prosecuted to begin with. I just wanted him out of the house for the night.”
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