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Approach to domestic abuse can offset lack of star witness


A fist to the eye, followed by a gun to the head, and the wife, at last, dialed 911. She told the Baltimore County operator she had fallen and hurt herself, and asked for an ambulance. The operator was suspicious and smart; she dispatched a police officer as well as a paramedic.

The officer arrived at the house first. The husband answered the door. Behind him stood the woman, who wept and held a hand against her bloody eye. Now she told the officer what the fist and the gun had prevented her from telling 911: "My husband did this to me. He threatened me with a handgun."

The police handcuffed the husband and took him to jail. The wife went to an emergency room.

Fast-forward a few months, to February. The husband stands trial on assault and battery charges in Baltimore County Circuit Court. The arresting officer testifies against him. So does the 911 operator. So does the emergency room physician who treated the wife. Every relevant witness testifies for the prosecution -- except the victim.

"The wife exercised her privilege [not to testify against her husband]," says Steve Bailey, the assistant state's attorney who runs Baltimore County's Family Violence Unit. "We presented our case and rested. The defense called the wife, who testified that [the assault] didn't happen, that she was angry because [the husband] had been with another woman, and that she had made this whole thing up."

The jury, unimpressed with the victim's story, convicted the husband; he will be sentenced this spring.

It was hardly the first time a woman had refused to testify against her abusive husband. And not the only time violent men have been convicted despite their victims' reluctance to cooperate with the state. Earlier this year, a 21-year-old Baltimore man was convicted of raping and beating a former girlfriend, even though she claimed to have lied about the rape and wound up as a defense witness. The man was convicted on other evidence presented by prosecutor Bailey's unit: testimony of police, emergency room personnel and the victim's former roommate, as well as photographs of the victim with a swollen face and bruises all over her body.

"We have learned that it is silly to anticipate having a cooperative witness in cases like these," Bailey says.

"We handle them as if they were homicide cases, where you don't have a victim to testify," says Sgt. Bruce Brooks, who heads a domestic violence unit at Baltimore's Northern District, a pilot program becoming a model for others throughout the city. "We've been successful in getting convictions without the victim testifying."

Police and prosecutors listen for the "excited utterances" of victims at the crime scene. They obtain photographs of victims. They're allowed to use as evidence tape recordings of 911 calls. Also critical, says Officer Sandra Carroll, who works with Brooks, is getting a fresh statement from the victim. "As soon as we get a report, we send a letter to every victim in a plain, hand-written envelope," Carroll says. "We tell them what options are available to them. We give them a direct line to our office, and when that phone rings, it's always answered simply, 'Hello.' That's all done within 24 hours of the offense."

But no matter how clear and firm their initial statements to police, victims frequently refuse to cooperate when -- and if -- the cases get to trial. "We had one," says Brooks, "where the woman's boyfriend broke into her home and threatened her the day before trial."

Still, police and prosecutors seem to be learning how to put together cases without the assistance of victims.

Increasingly it's successful. But not always.

Consider the case -- highlighted in this column March 29 -- that came before Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger. A heavyset man was accused of assaulting his pregnant girlfriend on Washington Avenue, Randallstown. On the day of the trial, the victim, who had filed the initial complaint against her boyfriend, recanted; she even tried to blame herself for starting the fight. The prosecutor, Steve Kroll, pressed the woman to back up statements she had given police and hospital personnel, but was unsuccessful. Without the woman's testimony, Bollinger said, he could not find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Then he told the woman: "Ma'am, you are doing a disservice to every woman in this country who's suffering abuse. . . . Get out of my courtroom."

A number of readers of this column thought Bollinger's statement amounted to an unduly harsh and insensitive chastisement of a vulnerable woman. They complained that, under the circumstances, it was unrealistic to have expected the woman to testify freely. Bollinger should have considered other evidence.

He did, according to Kroll, who, unlike the complaining readers, was in the courtroom that day. But there wasn't enough other evidence to make the case -- no physical injury that could have been photographed, no police officer to testify, no weapon. Bollinger admitted it all, considered it all, but could not find the defendant guilty.

"These are all tough cases," Kroll said. "Some are tougher than others. This was a tough one, even without the victim recanting."

Prosecution of domestic assault is still an evolving science, and it's far from perfect. However, one thing seems clear: Police and prosecutors are trying, at last, do something about it, even without their star witness.

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