Editorial: An all-too-familiar scenario in handling of domestic violence cases

·3 min read

What happened in a Loudoun County courtroom recently is troubling in so many ways, but none worse than what the incident says about how those who dare accuse someone of domestic violence are treated by the criminal justice system — even now, after years of efforts to raise awareness.

In Loudoun, the woman who was the alleged victim in a felony domestic violence trial wound up in jail on a contempt of court charge after she admitted to the judge that she had smoked marijuana earlier in the day. She served two days in jail before being released on $1,000 bond. Later, attorneys for the woman tried to vacate the contempt charge, but the judge rejected the request without a hearing.

Meanwhile, the man who allegedly abused the woman went free when the judge declared a mistrial. He had been facing his third domestic abuse trial.

On one level, this incident demonstrates some of the problems with Virginia’s halfway efforts to legalize marijuana. Since July 1, it’s no longer illegal to possess, use or grow marijuana. But for now, at least, it’s still illegal to buy the stuff unless you have a medical prescription.

Apparently, even though it’s now legal, Circuit Court Judge James P. Fisher isn’t very tolerant of pot. He interrupted the woman’s testimony to ask her about marijuana use. When she said that she had smoked some earlier in the day, he had her physically removed from the courtroom and put into jail, saying that she was intoxicated. Police and prosecutors who dealt with the woman said that she did not show signs of intoxication.

She was nervous, understandably. She was testifying in front of the man who had previously been convicted of hurting her, and who she said now had punched her in the face. The defense attorneys had been questioning her intensely about drug use and infidelity. No wonder she appeared jittery.

This trial has raised other questions about Judge Fisher’s behavior. He has been under deserved scrutiny because of his actions at the trial and in denying the woman any hearing on her petition to dismiss the contempt charge against her.

In a statement issued by her lawyers, the woman said that she has learned “that it does no good to report domestic abuse because the system and the courts appear to have no real interest in protecting victims and punishing abusers.”

That sad lesson rings true. Its message will likely be the most lasting harm from this disturbing series of events.

It takes a lot of courage for a victim of domestic violence to take a stand and report what has happened. Often, the victim has been intimidated and made to feel helpless. It’s not unusual for a victim — not always, but most often a woman — to call police to stop the violence but then to be afraid to proceed with charges.

Too often, that means an attacker goes unpunished and returns to violence again. Often, the violence escalates.

If criminal justice system treats victims with no respect, their fears and feelings of helplessness are reinforced. It’s even worse when they treat a victim as if she’s as guilty as an abuser — that she’s responsible for her problems, that she somehow deserved to be physically attacked.

It’s deeply worrisome to see that happen in this case and to read about Judge Fisher’s treatment of a victim who had the courage to testify. When the defense lawyers questioned her, he interrupted to ask if she’d been smoking marijuana that day. Then he jailed her and declared a mistrial in the case.

Real-life examples like this one send exactly the wrong message to victims of domestic abuse. It’s a message that’s a lot more powerful than all the signs and public-service messages put out by people and agencies trying to make people feel that they will be protected and treated with sensitivity and respect if they gather the courage to report domestic violence.

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