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This piece was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
If you’re a domestic violence survivor, you know that abusers can appear to be upstanding members of society. They may be successful professionals, churchgoers or soccer dads. And they know that being convicted of a crime related to domestic violence puts that upstanding reputation at risk. So, they may do just about anything to avoid a conviction.
One common strategy abusers use is called “witness tampering.” It’s a type of obstruction of justice where they threaten survivors, so survivors either refuse to testify or they recant, meaning they change their recollection of events.
“Witness tampering is rampant. It’s something we deal with every day,” says David Martin, senior deputy prosecuting attorney who specializes in domestic violence for King County in Washington state. “It’s not just that they’re not showing up. They are also changing their recollection of events.”
When a survivor doesn’t testify or recants, the prosecutor can still move forward with the case. But it can be tough to get a conviction. That’s because abuse is almost always private, with no other witnesses. So, a survivor’s testimony is often the only evidence against the abuser.
Here’s what might happen, and some steps you can take.
Strategies Abusers Use to Manipulate Survivors
Abusers might turn to threats, harassment, coercion, physical harm or bribes to force survivors to change their testimony or to refuse to testify. Sometimes, though, the manipulation is more subtle.
“Batterers are very good at manipulation. In some cases, they’ll say, ‘If you testify, I’ll kill you.’ But, often, the manipulation is much more sophisticated,” Martin says. “They’ll start laying the groundwork by redefining the abuse narrative and reminding the victim of their common visions of love and success. And then they’ll reestablish the cycle of violence. They’re experts at doing it.”
An abuser may:
- Give a survivor expensive items
- Offer to pay more in child support
- Beg for forgiveness
- Make promises, such as stopping substance abuse or going to counseling
- Say they will try to get sole custody of children
- Make threats, such as saying they will file for divorce, report the survivor to social services for parenting issues or call immigration authorities
- Cause property damage
Some of these tactics are clearly crimes. But others fall into a gray area. For example, it could be hard to prove that buying someone an expensive gift or paying more in child support is a form of manipulation or witness tampering.
Prosecutors Watch for Signs of Witness Tampering
Witness tampering is something prosecutors know they have to deal with. They often spot it because the survivor will stop cooperating or returning phone calls. If the abuser is in jail, they can check phone records.
“We can get a report from the jail, and usually it’ll show that the victim’s phone number had been called many, many times,” Martin says.
Prosecutors can use these recorded calls to try to catch witness tampering early. That way, they can work with the survivor to help them decide what is in their best interest. They can also use recorded jail conversations and other evidence of witness tampering in court.
“When we uncover the tampering that’s going on, we try to give the victim enough confidence to come forward and tell their story,” Martin says. “But we also have to keep the victim’s best interest in mind. If someone is really adamant about not participating, we look at whether there are truly good reasons for that or if they are being tampered with.”
Even if a survivor ultimately decides not to participate in the justice process, they can still find support from prosecutors.
“Advocacy is critical in what we’re doing,” Martin says. “An important part of victim advocacy is working with victims even when they say they don’t want to participate in the legal process. Sometimes people will overcome the tampering, and sometimes they won’t. Either way, we will still provide the services needed.”
What Survivors Can Do
It’s difficult to fight back against manipulation from an abuser. Your safety, your financial well-being and your ability to protect your children could be at risk. But there are steps you can take.
Recognize signs of manipulation. Educating yourself on the ways abusers often manipulate survivors is a good first step. Knowing what to watch for can help you identify when what appears to be a loving gesture is actually a trick.
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Get an order of protection. An order of protection, sometimes called a restraining order, can minimize or eliminate how an abuser can contact you. These orders can require an abuser to stay away from locations such as your home, workplace or school. They can also include “no contact” provisions which mean the abuser can’t contact you in any way. While not all abusers respect these orders, they can help reduce the ways an abuser can try to manipulate you. And violating them can result in criminal charges.
Lean on other evidence. You can provide a prosecutor with other evidence that supports your case. That might include:
- Photographs of any injuries or physical damage to property, such as a broken phone or a hole in a wall
- Testimony from others, such as neighbors or the police
- 911 recordings, or videos from cameras in public places
- Voicemails, texts or social media messages
- GPS tracking that shows the location of an abuser
Report threats. If the abuser threatens to keep you from testifying or telling the truth in court, report the threats to the police and alert your prosecutor. One way abusers manipulate survivors to keep them from testifying is by threatening to sue them for defamation in civil court. Learn more about this practice and how to protect yourself against a civil court case in “How Anti-SLAPP Laws Work.”
Connect with help. Local domestic violence agencies can connect you with the help you need, make sure you understand your rights and ensure that you are getting legal support.
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