Some criminal domestic violence dockets go more smoothly than others. It was infuriating last week to see what happened to a victim who took the brave step to come to court to testify against her former partner, who was charged with violating her protective order six times.
The defendant’s criminal record included numerous assault charges, carrying a concealed weapon, and multiple theft convictions. The hearing was postponed, and as soon as the judge finished setting a new date, the victim bolted from the courtroom.
The defendant was allowed to leave the courtroom 60 seconds after the victim. We don’t know whether he caught up with her and made threats, honeymooned her, or didn’t make contact at all. What is completely inappropriate is that he had the opportunity to make contact in and outside the courthouse.
Bailiffs are now trained on the importance of staggering exits, so that victims of domestic violence are not contacted or harmed by their abusers as they make their way to their transportation. Although there has been a big improvement in the use of staggered exits in protective order hearings (rates are still not what they should be), defendants in criminal cases are often not held to the same standard.
The situation last week then became farcical. The defendant came back into the courtroom several minutes after he had left. He sat down in the front row, then got the bailiff’s attention and asked if he could leave. The bailiff told him he had to wait until he was told he could go. The bailiff then turned back, with a second bailiff, to chat with the clerk. (The judge was in recess.) The defendant got up and left the courtroom again without being stopped. He returned, again, casually strode up to the front of the courtroom, sat down in one of the bailiff chairs, and fell asleep, still without any interaction with the bailiffs. He eventually woke up, returned to the first row, received his papers and left.
We ask a lot of domestic violence survivors. We ask them to come to court and testify, even though it may endanger their short and/or long term safety. When they don’t appear many are frustrated. If you were harassed in the courthouse by your abuser and another hearing was scheduled, would you show up? I’m not sure I would. At the very least, we owe victims safety in the courthouse and safety as they leave.