Why do some victims of domestic violence refuse to testify?

Hurt party often is grappling with fear, hope, finances

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

When Pennsylvania State Trooper Paul C. Mauser appeared before a Westmoreland County district judge earlier this month to answer charges of aggravated assault, terroristic threats, harassment and simple assault, he quickly learned that the victim -- who was his wife -- would not testify against him.

The district attorney's office presented no other evidence, and Judge Charles Christner had no choice but to dismiss the charges.

Jennifer Mauser's refusal to testify about the Feb. 6 incident in which her husband allegedly pushed her down the stairs, breaking her ankle, is an example of a problem that district attorney's offices face regularly in prosecuting domestic violence cases.

And experts say there are no easy answers.

Dropping charges against an accused batterer because the victim refuses to cooperate sends a signal that intimidation works.

But forcing a victim to testify -- or, in the alternative, holding her in contempt for refusing to cooperate -- only reinforces the idea that the victim is not in control and puts her at further potential risk.

Across the United States, beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing through the mid-1990s, a number of large cities, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Dallas, implemented what are called no-drop policies with regard to domestic violence, according to a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Public Economics.

That means that, once a woman has brought charges against a batterer, the prosecution must continue, whether she wants it to or not.

Neither Pittsburgh nor Philadelphia have such a policy.

Instead, in Pennsylvania, the decision is made by each individual jurisdiction.

In Westmoreland County, where Trooper Mauser was charged, District Attorney John Peck said he rarely prosecutes a domestic violence case without the victim's cooperation.

"In a very serious case, with serious injuries, or where it's a repeated offense, we might proceed in spite of their wishes," he said. "There's a weighing process in how much would be gained or how much harm would be caused by continuing the prosecution."

But according to a recently published guide created for state prosecutors by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, "It is important that the prosecutor continue to remind perpetrators, victim witness advocates/personnel, and other professionals who support the criminal justice process, that it is the state that prosecutes crimes," it said. "At no time does the decision to prosecute rest with the victim. The victim cannot 'press charges' against the perpetrator."

Safety, money, other concerns

According to the affidavit of probable cause filed against him, Trooper Mauser and his wife were at their Sutersville home arguing about 9 a.m. Feb. 6, when he threw coffee at her.

"He then pushed the victim on the floor and kneeled on top of her and made a verbal comment that he would kill her," the complaint said.

Ms. Mauser then went upstairs where her husband met her.

"Just prior to the victim reaching the top of the steps, the defendant pushed the victim backward, causing her to fall down the flight of steps," it said. "The victim then crawled to another room where the defendant grabbed a pool stick and stated that since the victim was hurt that something had to happen and stated that 'one of us has to die.' "

Ms. Mauser asked her husband to take her to the hospital and told him she would say she fell down the steps. Once there, however, she told security what had happened, and police were called.

In addition to her broken ankle, Ms. Mauser had an abrasion to her forehead, the complaint said.

Mr. Peck would not say why Ms. Mauser did not want to go forward with the prosecution, but he noted that she filed for divorce last month. According to those court papers, the Mausers formally separated the day of the February incident.

She is represented by counsel in that civil action, and she met with prosecutors multiple times before saying she would not testify.

"She was making a fully intelligent and reasonable decision," Mr. Peck said.

Her attorney, Scott Avolio, said he could not comment on the case.

Trooper Mauser's defense attorney, Jason Walsh, could not be reached for comment.

Lorraine M. Bittner, legal director of the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, said there are a number of reasons victims sometimes choose not to cooperate with investigators. The top three, she said, are: safety, a desire to save the relationship and economic pressures.

The victim realizes that turning to criminal prosecution can escalate the potential danger, she said.

"It's really hard for them to be the reason someone is getting a criminal consequence," Ms. Bittner said.

As for trying to save the relationship, that could include protecting the children or even the extended family.

Often, Ms. Bittner said, financial reasons play a major role.

"Financially, victims don't want the batterers to lose their jobs," she said.

If they're in the midst of a divorce, that could mean no alimony or child support, she said.

"Separation is financially extremely difficult. If he's the primary wage earner, then what? It's hard," Ms. Bittner said.

In the Mauser case, the divorce complaint notes that Ms. Mauser was primarily a homemaker and "lacks the earning capacity" to fully support herself.

According to Ms. Bittner, prosecuting domestic violence cases should involve a two-prong approach: Keep the victim safe and hold the batterer accountable.

Her agency advocates a "pro-prosecution policy," but not "no drop" or "mandatory prosecution" policies, which take away a victim's ability to make her own decisions.

The district attorney should ask for the victim's input, "but it's the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania making the decision to go forward," Ms. Bittner said. "In the end, it's a crime against Pennsylvania.

"If you leave it up to the victim, then all the pressure is on her. We don't want to go back to that. You're turning to the most vulnerable person to set policy for law enforcement."

It's 'state vs. him'

Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney David Spurgeon, who has led the domestic violence unit since 2009, said victim cooperation should not be the ultimate factor in whether a case moves forward.

"It's not him vs. her," he said. "It's the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. him."

If a victim says she can't testify, Mr. Spurgeon continued, "We'll say on the record, the victim doesn't want to proceed on this case, and that it's the commonwealth's decision to move forward."

Often when that happens, he said, the victim later thanks him for doing that.

Allegheny County's specialized unit handles 800 to 1,100 cases per year.

Mr. Spurgeon acknowledged it can be difficult to get a conviction without a victim.

But there are other ways to settle a case, he said. Sometimes charges can be reduced, and a batterer will agree to take anger management classes or some other form of counseling.

"Our goal is not just to protect the victim but society as a whole," Mr. Spurgeon said. "Just because the battering incident is over doesn't mean there won't be another one with another victim."

One of the ways to ensure a case can move forward without the victim's participation is by making sure police officers are trained on the front end to collect as much evidence early on as possible. That way, Ms. Bittner said, if the victim later changes her mind about cooperating, there is evidence corroborating the initial allegations that may be able to sustain a conviction.

In the Mauser case, the prosecution would have been able to use the victim's statement made to police if the case had gone forward. It was unclear from the criminal complaint if photographs of Ms. Mauser's injuries were taken.

Mr. Peck said that a victim often doesn't want to participate for fear it will further harm the relationship -- or affect their children.

"We have to respect that -- the issues the victim is dealing with," he said.

Since the charges were dismissed against him, Trooper Mauser, who had been suspended without pay, is now working restricted duty, while an internal police investigation is conducted.

The results of that could come within 30 to 60 days, said Maria Finn, a spokeswoman with the state police. She could not speak specifically about Trooper Mauser or his case.

"Just because there's no formal prosecution doesn't mean we won't find there's misconduct," she said. "Every stone is uncovered. It is so detailed."

If allegations are sustained, Trooper Mauser could face internal discipline.

Mr. Peck said that the fact that Trooper Mauser is a law enforcement officer doesn't mean he should be treated any more or less harshly.

"The fact the defendant is a trooper is one to be considered, but I don't think it's determinative in how we pursue the case," he said. "We want to be evenhanded with everyone we charge with a crime."

mobilehome - region - crime - publicsafety

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?