Why Do We Need A Victim’s Cooperation To Prosecute Domestic Violence Charges?

The law sometimes doesn’t make much sense. Take a side-by-side comparison of murder and domestic violence charges, for example. When prosecuting a person for committing murder, there’s no need for cooperation (because the victim is deceased). But when prosecuting a person for many other violent crimes, domestic violence included, the law requires the cooperation of the victim.

Why?

It’s plain for all to see that the person who committed an act of violence not only did something immoral and illegal, but also that an arrest should be forthcoming. Yet that isn’t the way the system works, even when there is plenty of additional evidence a crime took place.

Part of the reason that the legal system is hesitant from prosecuting without cooperation is because victims will often do the exact opposite: obstruct justice. That would pave the way for arresting and trying someone who almost anyone would agree is a victim, but the law is the law, and on occasion no one wants it to work the way it does.

A victim of domestic violence, Michelle, wrote about her husband in an affidavit: “He beat me in front of my kids. He made death threats in front of my children, sisters and his parents.” She had requested a restraining order, afraid for her life and the lives of her kids. The problem is, her husband’s parents denied ever hearing such threats, and only days later she recanted her sworn affidavit in a hysterical visit to the district attorney’s office.

Michelle’s husband had already been arrested. When he promised his father and stepmother that he’d never do it again (as perpetrators of these crimes so often do), they bailed him out of jail. Because Michelle recanted, the case was precipitously dropped.

Michelle and her two kids were dead two months later. Her husband shot and killed them all before committing suicide.

In the 1980s and 1990s, prosecutors became tired of this familiar story and decided to do something about it. A new movement of “evidence-based prosecution” was born from their fight, which would allow criminals to be prosecuted without forcing the victim to testify against the abuser.

The cases have been historically difficult to win, though, in part because prosecutors aren’t experienced enough. Still, the system has come a long way and some prosecutors have learned the tricks of the new trade. Thousands of prosecutors have been trained to move forward with cases for which the victim had either recanted former accusations or didn’t make them at all. More cases are being won than ever before, and more lives have been saved because of it.

Still, though, many prosecutors won’t follow through with these cases without a victim’s cooperation because some prefer an easy win over justice. We can do better, and we need to do better.