Friday, January 20, 2006

Attn Advocates: Opportunity to Stop Family Violence

This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that will have profound implications on the prosecution of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, child abuse and child sexual assault cases. Hammon v. Indiana focuses on admitting victim comments into evidence when the victim is not actually in court to testify or be cross-examined. Stop Family Violence needs your stories for a legal brief that will help the Supreme Court find the right balance between the rights of the accused and safety and rights of victims.

For many victims testifying in court is too traumatic or dangerous to even consider. The victim may fear, and stalkers and abusers may have threatened, further harm to the victim or other family members if the victim testifies. Rape victims may find the thought of reliving the rape by testifying too much to bear. Young children who have been sexually or physically abused may be too terrified to sit in a courtroom to confront their abuser.

Since the mid 1990’s, prosecutors have used evidence-based, victimless prosecutions to combat this problem, using such things as 911 calls, police and medical reports, DNA evidence and in the case of child sexual assault victims – using videotaped interviews or live video from a remote location – to allow prosecution to proceed without endangering or retraumatizing the victims. These victimless, evidence-based prosecutions have been highly successful in allowing prosecutors to hold offenders accountable while keeping victims safe.

However, two years ago, in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Crawford v. Washington, the court limited the types of evidence that could be used in court, saying that “testimonial” evidence was not admissible unless the victim/witness was available for cross-examination. However the court did not specify what counts as “testimonial” evidence and what does not. For example, are 911 calls admissible without a victim? What about statements made by the victim to police? These are the issues that will be addressed in the upcoming Hammon case.

The Crawford decision has had a terribly detrimental effect on the prosecution of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and child sexual abuse cases. In some cases, prosecutors are not bringing cases to court if the victim won’t testify, even if there is strong evidence that a crime was committed. In other instances, prosecutors are threatening victims with contempt of court, or even putting victims in jail to coerce their testimony.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ensures the defendant’s right to confront their accuser, and no one is looking to see this right denied. However, in a murder case, the victim is clearly not available to testify, yet the case proceeds based on evidence. We hope in Hammon the Court finds the right balance between victims’ need for safety and the rights of the accused.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or the parent of a child who was sexually abused AND you chose not to testify in court OR if you are the advocate or prosecutor who worked with such a victim, Stop Family Violence would like to include your story. SFV also would like to include your story if you did testify against your assailant in criminal court and you or family members experienced further harm as a result. Last, if you are a prosecutor or legal advocate, SFV would like to hear from you about the impact of the Crawford decision on prosecution in your community.

Click on the title of this post to be directed to SFV's website to tell your story.

Post compliments of 1/20/06 Email update from Stop Family Violence.