Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final installment in a series looking at domestic violence in Knox County. This week we take a closer look at what it takes to prosecute these crimes. You met “Bridget,” a local victim of domestic violence, in Part 3. Her real name is being withheld to protect her anonymity.
If it’s so bad, why doesn’t she just leave?
Enduring more than 30 years of emotional and physical abuse from her husband, Bridget heard that refrain time and again.
But the very moment a person summons the courage to leave a violent relationship is the moment they become most vulnerable, facing the very real danger of being murdered by their intimate partner.
A study from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority indicated that nearly half of all murdered women were killed as they attempted to leave their partners.
Yet despite years of self-esteem-killing degradation and the very real threat of death, Bridget did summon the courage to leave.
While that first step is immensely courageous, the story for survivors doesn’t end there. Instead, it begins a new battle they must fight — oftentimes in a courtroom.
Melissa Haaff, director of Hope’s Voice, an organization that looks to assist victims of domestic violence, indicates this fight is lopsided, with the victim often left without justice.
“If a woman comes forward it’s like ‘what did she do that caused her to be assaulted.’ That stigma is still there. Then, when she finally tells her story to the local authorities, nothing happens to her abuser,” Haaff said.
A national study conducted by “Psychology Today” in 2014 found that less than 10% of domestic violence cases are prosecuted.
And, just as grim, the study found that no more than 2% of abusers ever served any jail time beyond the initial 24-48 hour “cooling off period” enforced by most states.
Haaff said this lack of penalty or accountability leads to real concerns for the survivors.
Inside his office on North Seventh Street, Dirk Carnahan combs through the pages of a 2,500-word document he has compiled, one soon be used as a handout for survivors of domestic violence.
Subtitled “It Can be a Long Journey,” the guide sets out to provide a list of resources for the men and women who have been violated by their partners and a summary of the legal process they face.
Part of that is an explanation of why the justice system often doesn’t provide the closure sought after by those who have been so viciously wronged.
As Knox County’s prosecuting attorney, Carnahan regularly meets survivors of domestic violence at a time of great vulnerability, and though he wants to offer them justice, sometimes that simply isn’t possible.
“The toughest part of being a prosecutor is knowing that there are times when a person has been victimized and there is little or nothing we can do,” he said.
There are constraints, he said, within which he must operate.
First, the American justice system is designed to ensure an innocent person is never wrongly convicted of a crime. As a result, the burden of proof is placed on the prosecution.
And sometimes, said Carnahan, even when it seems someone is clearly guilty, he may not be able to prosecute due to deficiencies in the investigation or problems with the strength of the case, among other reasons.
These weaknesses in cases and investigations, he added, occur for a whole host of reasons.
Due to the trauma of a violent event, survivors can easily confuse details of the assault; witnesses often disappear and memories fade over time.
These difficulties are also compounded, said Carnahan, by the fact that abusers often target those who are already most vulnerable. Some survivors may be very young or very old, have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol or may be living with physical or mental disabilities.
In other instances, there could be important evidence that may not be admissible in court. Other times, an individual may have clearly done something morally or ethically wrong, but the behavior doesn’t fit under the exact definition of a specific crime.
“Prosecutors have very strict laws and rules to follow,” Carnahan said. “These rules limit who can be charged with a crime and what constitutes a crime.”
“Filing a charge that we know we can’t prove is unethical. Filing a charge that most likely will result in a not guilty verdict often causes more damage to a victim or survivor than not filing the charge,” he added.
Still, Carnahan contends that the way he chooses to proceed — such as determining whether or not a case can be mounted at all or pursuing a plea deal instead — is based on the best interest of the victim, even if it’s a move not understood by the survivor.
“No survivor is served by being drug through a process that will end in acquittal,” he said.
Acknowledging the deep frustration survivors feel when their case isn’t prosecuted, Carnahan said he and others in his office are equally frustrated.
“I wouldn’t have ever taken this job if I didn’t want to pursue justice,” he said.
For the small percentage of domestic violence cases filed in Knox County, there is still a long road.
With only three courts in the county — all of which handle everything from criminal cases to custody battles and traffic violations — the courts’ calendars are overwhelmingly full.
With more cases than court dates, “If all cases had to be resolved by trial, the bottleneck would limit the system to resolving only 20 or 30 cases per year,” Carnahan noted.
Nearly all domestic violence cases taken up by prosecutors end with plea agreements, and Carnahan argues that — despite popular opinion — a plea deal can be a good thing.
“The truth is that a plea agreement usually provides an outcome that is very similar to what would have happened following a trial,” he said.
“A plea agreement avoids the risk of the unpredictability that comes with a jury trial. A plea agreement provides closure and an admission of guilt from the defendant,” he said.
The extremely rare cases that do make it to trial are left in the hands of twelve jurors, and if the defendant is found guilty, sentencing is left in the hands of the judge.
After sentencing of the abuser, survivors are still sometimes left feeling as if justice has not been served, citing lenient sentences as one primary reason.
“Judges are bound by sentencing laws and by legal theories that are not always understood by survivors. Sentences can be far more lenient than what a survivor had hoped,” said Carnahan.
A two-year review of domestic violence cases by the U.S. Bureau of Justice found that the average sentence for this group of violent offenders was just 5 years.
However, that number also included the sentences for even the the most heinous of domestic violence offenses — brutal beatings, rape, assault against minors and even murder of an intimate partner.
Yet there is still hope for survivors.
Over the years, laws and policies across the nation have changed in an effort to better protect and support survivors of domestic violence.
For instance, a new state law protects child victims from being forced to give a deposition, and processes have been streamlined so that survivors don’t have to relive the event by giving multiple statements.
Too, advocacy organizations like Hope’s Voice have cropped up across the nation and are there to stand with those who have been abused.
The staff at Hope’s Voice want survivors to know that there is no shame in acknowledging an abusive relationship or seeking help when they’re ready.
“Call us anytime — reach out when you can. We believe you and we will support you,” said Haaff.
Those in need can call Hope’s Voice at 812-886-4470 during regular business hours. Their crisis hotline, staffed 24 hours per day, can be reached at 812-899-4673.
For more information about Hope’s Voice and upcoming Domestic Violence Awareness Month events, visit their Facebook page.