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Batterers are not always career criminals like the drug dealers on the corner who are constantly getting arrested. They can be professionals, church-goers and soccer dads. And, they know that having a criminal record of domestic violence puts the things most important to them at risk. Which means they’ll do just about anything to avoid a conviction—including threatening survivors into recanting their stories in court or refusing to testify altogether, a practice called witness tampering.
“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.”
Victim recantation can be detrimental to a domestic violence case since abuse often takes place privately with no other witnesses. It’s particularly difficult to get a conviction when there is little or no other evidence of abuse than the victim’s testimony.
Unfortunately, witness tampering is something prosecutors know they have to deal with. “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.”
Prosecutors are on the lookout for witness tampering and often can tell when it’s going on because the victim will stop being cooperative or returning phone calls. If the abuser is in jail, jail phone records are checked.
“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.
The good news is that prosecutors can use recorded jail conversations and other evidence of witness tampering in court. They also use these recorded calls to try and catch witness tampering early in order to work with the survivor to help him or her decide what is in his or her best interest.
“When we uncover the tampering that’s going on, we try to give the victim enough confidence to come forward and tell their story,” he 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 victim ultimately decides not to participate in the justice process, that does not mean prosecutors turn their backs.
“Advocacy is critical in what we’re doing,” he 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.”
If your abuser makes threats in an attempt to keep you from testifying or telling the truth in court, report the threats to the police and alert your case prosecutor. One way batterers 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 you can protect yourself against a civil court case in “How Anti-SLAPP Laws Work.”
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