Victimless Criminal Court 

When Domestic Violence Victims Don't Show Up

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AT 9 AM ON TUESDAY, June 15, seven misdemeanor domestic violence cases were sitting in front of Multnomah County Family Court Judge Tom Ryan. By 9:15 am, he had dismissed six.

This is a typical morning in domestic violence court. These cases are on the rise in Portland and nationally—an estimated 28,000 women in Multnomah County will be abused this year. In this dire climate, why are so many cases dismissed before they get to trial? The answer is clear on the Tuesday morning in question. In each of the dismissed cases, a key witness—usually the victim—didn't show up.

"Our cases often rise and fall on the testimony of the victim," says Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Amy Holmes Hehn, who prosecutes domestic violence cases. By the time a trial date is set, victims are frequently unwilling to testify, often because they are afraid or they are back in the arms of the defendant. In domestic violence misdemeanor cases, prosecutors like Hehn get two chances to reschedule the trial date. After those two chances, the case has to go to trial, whether or not it's ready.

When victims don't show up, a judge dismisses the case, and all the defenders, lawyers, and experts who have been called to testify pack up their briefcases and leave. This bizarre spectacle occurs every week at the courthouse.

"Cases are not getting dismissed over the victims' objections," says Judge Ryan. "There are often cases in which, by the time the case gets to trial, the couple is back together."

Other jurisdictions put stronger pressure on victims to testify against alleged abusers. But Multnomah County doesn't seem too keen to copy their tactics.

"The Clark County, Washington, district attorney is very clear with victims that if they don't show up for trial, they'll be arrested," says Hehn. "We don't really take that approach very often." Instead, she says, the county tries to support and educate domestic violence victims to reduce their dependence on abusive partners.

Meanwhile, the city pays dearly for courtroom time, even when it ends in a dismissal. For example, police officers who respond to domestic violence incidents are often present in case they need to serve as witnesses. If the court time is outside of an officer's duty hours, the city pays overtime—starting at a minimum of four hours, even if a dismissal only takes a few minutes.

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