In this together
Prosecutor speaks on the importance of encouraging victims
“I fell down the stairs, that’s how I got the black eye.”
“He didn’t pull my hair, it got caught.”
“I hit him first.”
“He really was just trying to help me.”
“I don’t know why I ended up at the emergency room.”
All of these are statements that First Assistant County Attorney Ryan Baldridge has heard from victims in domestic violence cases that he said couldn’t be any more clear cut.
“They feel like they have to (lie) to survive,” Baldridge said at the Domestic / Sexual Assault Outreach Center’s Candlelight Vigil Thursday, enumerating the complexities of domestic abuse that continue to vex prosecutors like him.
With 101 domestic violence cases referred to the Webster County Attorney’s Office in 2020 alone, he said ensuring that victims are encouraged and treated with dignity remains key to helping them out of a situation where their cooperation is often key to successful prosecution and survival. The annual vigil at St. Paul Lutheran Church, he said, is an opportunity to remember that they’re not alone, speaking to the importance of utilizing community resources, advocates and relatives to help victims out of a vicious cycle.
Of those cases, about half have resulted in some sort of conviction. Slightly less than half are working their way through the criminal justice system. But nine continue to haunt him.
Those nine cases were dismissed outright, he said, by a criminal justice system designed to err in favor of the defendant’s constitutional rights, often treating victims as an afterthought.
By comparison across Iowa, about 40% of domestic violence cases are dismissed outright.
In 11 of those 101 cases, there wasn’t enough probable cause with evidence to secure a criminal charge. And with more experience, domestic abusers learn how to game the system and manipulate victims more skillfully.
Like 20 other states, Iowa requires law enforcement officers to make an arrest when evidence of an injury exists in a domestic abuse incident. But with experience, Baldridge said the mandatory arrests often make it even more difficult for victims anchored to the perpetrator through sexual, psychological and situational abuse. When a perpetrator is arrested, an avalanche of other problems make life even harder for dependent victims who have been through enough: less childcare to allow them to work, less income coming in to pay the bills and having to move out of the home shared with the perpetrator.
In the midst of trauma, it’s never a convenient time to handle unrelenting circumstances that even those without trauma could not reasonably tolerate.
“Once violence starts, it’s not uncommon for everything to continue to stack up,” the prosecutor said. “When it stacks up, it usually stacks up quickly.”
Making a tough job more difficult for prosecutors is the lack of a standard for handling cases where victims are unwilling to cooperate — and the resulting public scrutiny when perpetrators are not convicted as the public thinks they should be.
“In some fashion, we all need to to better — law enforcement, advocates, family, friends,” Baldridge said. “There’s no such thing as doing too much in these situations.”
While there are situations where an arrest always has to be made, Baldridge said the criminal justice system often inflicts more pain than benefit for victims through mandatory arrests. Studies show that one in four victims never call the police again after how they are treated the first time they report violence, he said.
“The system has failed them miserably. The system is designed for defendants,” said Baldridge.
And while the solution for prosecutors and law enforcement is not immediately clear in every case, encouraging victims and helping survivors in any way possible is the best plan B that the community as a whole has to keep the bridge to safety open until they’re ready to cross it.