Update (Sept. 1, 2016): The judge described in this post was charged with violations of Florida's judicial conduct rules and reprimanded by Justices of the Florida Supreme Court. Read the story in the Orlando Sentinel.
Original post (Oct. 7, 2015):
A Florida judge found a domestic violence victim and single mother of a year-old child in criminal contempt of court and sentenced her to three days in jail. The offense? The DV victim had failed to appear as a witness against her batterer during his criminal trial.
The contempt hearing was recorded on a video that was released to the press, so I asked an attorney and a trauma therapist to watch it and weigh in. Their comments are below.
Before we get to the video of the hearing, it's important to note that Florida law requires people who are summoned as witnesses in criminal matters to show up for trial:
A witness summoned in a criminal case shall remain available for attendance until the case for which he or she was summoned is disposed of or until he or she is excused by the court. A witness who departs without permission of the court shall be in criminal contempt of court.
Section 914.03, Fla. Stat.
But the law also allows witnesses the opportunity to "present evidence of excusing or mitigating circumstances" to avoid being found in criminal contempt. Here's a portion of that law (which is Rule 3.830 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure):
Prior to the adjudication of guilt the judge shall inform the defendant of the accusation against the defendant and inquire as to whether the defendant has any cause to show why he or she should not be adjudged guilty of contempt by the court and sentenced therefor. The defendant shall be given the opportunity to present evidence of excusing or mitigating circumstances.
So, the hearing recorded in the video was the DV victim's chance to present that evidence, and to answer the questions: (1) was there a reason that the victim/witness should be excused from the obligation to appear at the criminal trial of her batterer, or (2) were there circumstances present at the time of the trial that should lessen any penalty for her failure to show up?
The Contempt Hearing
Listen to the woman's explanation and the judge's reaction in the video, linked here: video of contempt hearing.
Here's a brief summary. The judge opened the hearing by stating that the DV victim had been "duly summoned" to appear for trial (satisfying a prerequisite for a finding of contempt). The judge stated that the jury was selected on a Monday, and that the prosecutor had instructed the DV victim to appear for trial on Tuesday. The judge acknowledged that the DV victim had repeatedly told the prosecutor that she would not be there, including the week before the trial. (So, no one was really expecting the DV victim to show up.)
The DV victim immediately apologized for not attending the trial, and explained that she was dealing with depression and a lot of anxiety on a daily basis, and had other personal reasons for refusing to participate in the trial. She had told the victim advocate she wanted the case dropped. She told the prosecutor she wasn't going to show up as a witness at trial.
She explained that she was homeless and had nothing material of any value. She had filed for child support but it took the state a year to find him (apparently, the batterer also is the child's father). Then, when she finally was getting close to getting child support from him and had plans to get an apartment and a job, he went to jail for two weeks (presumably on a prior domestic violence charge). When he went to jail for two weeks, he lost his job, lost everything, so that she could not get child support from him after all.
The judge berated the victim: "You think you have anxiety now? You haven't even seen anxiety!" The judge then found the DV victim in contempt of court and sentenced her to three days in the county jail.
I was astonished to hear the judge scold the victim and declare to this struggling single mother that she had never seen anxiety before that day.
And the jail sentence? Outrageous. I honestly do not understand why the judge couldn't have found the victim in contempt while assigning a more merciful penalty, such as a suspended jail sentence or a nominal fine to drive the point home. The mercy the judge could have shown would have been merciful to the baby, as well, who no doubt suffered with the abrupt three-day separation from his mother.
My other thoughts are better reflected in the comments below of the attorney and trauma therapist.
Former Prosecutor Weighs In
Craig Lawson is a criminal defense attorney in Boynton Beach, Florida. Before he established his defense practice, he was a prosecutor in the State Attorney’s office in Palm Beach County.
Mr. Lawson watched the video, and wondered why the prosecutor in this case even went ahead with picking the jury when his star witness never showed up:
"Why would he pick a jury when the victim told him that she wanted nothing to do with the case? The prosecutor should have informed the court that he did not expect the victim to appear at trial and to not pick a jury. Instead, he was going to show her (the victim) who was in charge, further victimizing the victim!
"This woman, like most DV victims, was financially dependent on this man and still afraid of him doing violence to her again. They have a child together, she is going to need his financial support and further contact with him because of the child. The victim had called the police because she wanted the beating to stop, but now she is still afraid of the batterer."
Mr. Lawson surmised that the prosecutor went ahead with picking a jury even in the absence of the victim because:
"The batterer knew she was not going to testify and probably forced the prosecutor to trial (by refusing to enter into a plea deal). The prosecutor, not willing to be outdone, picked a jury knowing the victim was not coming.
"The judge and the prosecutor were within their legal right to do all of this, but convicting the victim of criminal contempt and sentencing her to jail was not the right thing to do. I can predict how the next incident of violence will play out: 'Go ahead call the police, you remember what happened the last time!'
"Why would she ever call again?"
Observations from a Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Jennifer Young, LMHC, is Director of Survivor Services at the Institute for Relational Harm Reduction. Ms. Young focuses her practice on healing, and works with anyone seeking to disengage from a dangerous relationship, heal from traumatic events, or make life changes that are based on building inner strength. You can read more about her and reach her through either the Institute or through www.counselingforyourself.com.
Ms. Young had heard the story and had seen the video even before I asked her for her thoughts. Here's what she told me:
"I saw this story and it is appalling! A complete revictimazation. There are many cases where prosecutors can proceed without victims and that was likely the case here. Exposing victims to their perpetrators in court and in a case where the perpetrator can perceive power is dangerous. It can and will be used against the victim over and over again.
"A big part of how perpetrators manipulate victims back is through controlling the narrative of events - not the actual truth but the story. When professionals participate - knowingly or unknowingly - in the narrative it forces the victim back to the perpetrator because of perceived safety ... a perception that the perpetrator was right."
Our experts are unanimous that this DV victim has been victimized again by a system that does not understand the dynamics of abuse.
Have you had a similar experience? If so, please consider sharing your story with us either in the comments below or in a private email to us. We have projects underway to prevent justice system professionals from becoming participants in continued abuse, and your story could help us achieve our goals.