Editor’s note: All the defendants’ and victims’ names in the following story have been changed as they did not give permission for their names to be used. Similarly, the above photos have been edited to protect the victims' identities.
Teresa Johnson ran to her neighbor’s house with only one shoe after her husband began hitting her and throwing things at her, she said. They had gotten into an argument the day before, and he had calmed down. But today, something she said had angered him.
At her neighbor’s house with her 11-year-old, Teresa Johnson called the police. When the police arrived, she said her husband had thrown a salt shaker at her arm. Johnson said she felt sore, but the officer did not see any marks. Her husband said he didn’t touch her, according to the police report.
He then told the officers, “This won’t make it to court because she will drop it like she always does.”
Three out of four domestic violence cases in Athens County are dismissed. In a county with an average of nearly 250 cases of domestic violence per year, only 20 percent will be prosecuted as domestic violence offenses, according to court documents compiled by The New Political. For the cases that are not dismissed, many are reduced to the equivalent of trespassing.
Cases are often dismissed because of requests from the victims, Athens County prosecutors said. Nearly 60 percent of the cases dismissed were listed as a victim’s request or a lack of response from the victim, according to court documents. The remaining 40 percent of dismissals either had no reason listed or were dismissed by the prosecutor. Even the cases dismissed at the prosecutor’s request were because the victim requested it, said Lisa Eliason, Athens County law director and former city prosecutor.
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“We would not just dismiss a case,” she said. “But if a victim comes to us (we will), and that’s the likelihood that a victim will say they want the case dismissed.”
Tracy Meeks, an Athens city prosecutor, said that whether or not a case is dismissed doesn’t just depend on if a victim wants the charges dropped but also if the victim is responsive.
“It depends on the victim, because some of them want to talk and some of them really want us, really want our help, at least in the beginning. Others will never take a phone call,” she said. “I've definitely dismissed cases because I've had zero contact from a victim. None. Never.”
In the state of Ohio, domestic violence includes violence between spouses, a couple living together, two people with children in common, ex-spouses, siblings, parents and children if both are legally adults. It is a criminal offense classified as a first-degree misdemeanor for the first offense, meaning it is the same classification as stealing a $700 television.
“You’re dealing with people. You’re dealing with people’s emotions,” she said. “That makes it the most difficult. There’s this whole complex relationship that we don’t know about, but we have to learn to figure out how this happened and where we fit,” Meeks said.
Anyone convicted of domestic violence is charged with a fourth degree felony for repeat offenses. A fourth degree felony carries a possible punishment of six to 18 months in prison. But if the accused person is not convicted, such as when the case is dismissed, the severity of the charge is not increased in future cases. For most defendants, a case is only dismissed once, but a few repeat offenders get multiple cases dismissed before ever being convicted of felonious domestic violence.
Most cases are dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be reopened later if a victim decides to move forward with it. But this rarely happens, advocates said.
“It's very hard,” Meeks said. “I mean, especially when we're faced with situations where it's so obvious someone needs help. But we can't help somebody who has zero interest in helping them self. That's a cliché, but it’s so true.”
Reasons for dismissing a case
The reasons a victim would want a case dismissed vary based on the situation. Most victims are straight women whose abusers are their husbands, their boyfriends or the father of their children. For many, the men are the main source of income.
“They have no other choice because of financial reasons or they feel like they overreacted or they feel like they can save the defendant, save him because he’s the father of their children,” Eliason said. “People don’t want to break their family up. They’ll beg me, absolutely beg me (to dismiss the case).”
Economic factors are a prominent reason why many victims want to dismiss their cases. Athens County is the poorest county in Ohio with 31.7 percent of the population in poverty, according to the 2015 Ohio Poverty Report from the Ohio Development Services Agency.
“It’s scary for a lot of women,” Pat Smith, court advocate for the local women’s shelter My Sister’s Place, said. “They have a family. He’s the main source of support, and then all of the sudden, boom, you take him out of the picture. She’s then with all these kids thinking, ‘How am I going to pay these bills?’”
Before victims can have the case dismissed, they have to meet with a domestic violence advocate to develop a safety plan. The plan typically outlines the best procedure for a victim, including whether to leave the situation. However, a safety plan can only go so far.
“Anybody can sit around and make a plan and say, 'Here's my safety plan.' Well, if it's the end of the month and you don't have any money to get gas to get in your car and drive away the offender, your safety plan is not worth squat. Dependence is a huge problem,” Meeks said.
If the victim is a woman with children, her economic situation can become drastically worse as a single parent. The poverty rate for a single-mother household in Ohio is 55.3 percent, nearly 50 percent higher than married couples with children, also according to the Ohio Poverty Report.
Smith has the responsibility of helping victims develop a safety plan, meeting with hundreds of victims during her 14 years of work. She sits with the victims in a quiet room tucked in the back corner of the court house and talks with them about what is the best plan for them, even if that means staying.
“Sometimes she’s worse off leaving a bad situation then she is staying in it, because … women are at most danger when they leave a domestic violence relationship,” Smith said. “A lot of the women are killed at that point.”
The reasons for dismissing a case can be more personal as well. Domestic violence advocate for the Athens Police Department Molly Burchfield said she believes the biggest reason victims want the cases dismissed is to protect the offenders, who some advocates and prosecutors describe as “charmers.”
“It’s usually always about the offender,” Burchfield said. “They don’t want to see anything bad happen to the offender. They don’t want to see him go to jail.”
Complications of pursuing a conviction
Pursing a conviction -- which does not require a jury trial -- in a domestic violence case presents complications not often seen in other types of criminal charges.
Victims who decide to proceed with the charges have to testify in court, which could put them in danger later. If first-time offenders are convicted, they are not likely to be sentenced to any jail time, Eliason said, meaning they could find the victim.
“So you have a victim who, if she testifies against him and he’s convicted… it puts her in a less safe position,” Eliason said.
Some prosecutors, such as the Nelsonville prosecutor, have a no-dismissal policy, meaning the prosecutor can pursue the charge without the victim’s approval. But that leaves the prosecutor with only two options: force the victim to testify by issuing a subpoena or try to prosecute the case without the victim’s testimony.
“Imagine that,” Eliason said about forcing a victim to testify. “She has to come in and she sits there, and she has to face the person who committed this act upon her. If she’s still with him, she only has two choices: either testify truly as to what happened and face perhaps further battering or lie on the stand. I just think that makes her a victim even more.”
The victim of a case Eliason prosecuted many years ago did lie under oath, perjuring herself on the stand and opening her up to her own criminal charges. This case came during a period when Eliason and the city prosecutor’s office had a no-dismissal policy, which they have since changed.
“I know on the surface it looks like we should be getting a conviction in each and every case, but then is justice really being served?” she asked.
The prosecutors could proceed with a case without the victim’s testimony, but they have to have a witness. Witnesses are often hard to find since most incidents of abuse happen in the home, and when there are witnesses, they are usually children.
“If there is an eyewitness, lots of the time it's children, and calling children to the stand is touchy, especially when it involves two people who are important in their life,” Meeks said.
Prosecuting a case in a jury trial without a witness is nearly impossible.
“What you always have to ask yourself with every single case that comes across our desk is could I prove this to a jury? Could I prove this beyond a reasonable doubt?” Meeks said. “If that victim then calls you on Monday and says none of it happened, that's not how it happened, this was totally blown out of proportion … Do you think a jury is going to find him guilty? I can't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt because I don't have anyone to say it happened.”
Domestic violence cases are also difficult to prosecute because of a lack of data compared to other offenses like drunk driving, where prosecutors have access to data like blood alcohol levels.
“In a domestic violence case, the only evidence I have against you is what someone else says,” Meeks said. “There's no raw data.”
That means cases are often based on what the victim says happened versus what the defendant says happened. In some instances, the two accounts can be drastically different.
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Often times, domestic violence cases are also linked to other court proceedings like custody agreements or a divorce, making the stakes even higher.
In a case Meeks prosecuted early in her career, a woman had called the police on her boyfriend after he grabbed her and pushed her from the car. The two went out for drinks to discuss custody of their shared child earlier in the evening. Before he pushed her, the woman was yelling and hitting him, all of which he caught on camera.
Meeks warned the woman that she did not have a strong case and pursuing the charge to a jury trial would mean that everything from the incident would be on the record. The woman decided to pursue the case anyway, and she lost. Her boyfriend used the evidence and transcripts of the trial in their custody hearing.
“That's a memorable case because sometimes I do have these victims who are very very persistent and say, 'I want to pursue this,' and I say to them, ‘We can pursue this to a jury trial, but you're not going to win, and you're going to be left with nothing,'” Meeks said. “Sometimes justice is better served with just getting a conviction and getting a no contact order than having a jury trial and may be getting nothing.”
Finding an alternative
If the victim does not want to pursue the case as a domestic violence case, advocates will discuss other options like amending the charge. On average, nearly a quarter of domestic violence cases are reduced. The charge is typically amended to a persistent disorderly offense, the equivalent of trespassing.
“Persistent disorderly conduct is just a step above disorderly (conduct), but it has teeth because it carries jail time,” Meeks said.
Because the cases are not charged as domestic violence, the defendants would not have a domestic violence record, meaning any subsequent offenses would look like a first-time offense with a default first-degree misdemeanor charge.
Some defendants are also hesitant to plea to a domestic violence charge because Ohio law prohibits anyone with a record of domestic violence from earning a firearm.
However, reducing the charge allows prosecutors to get a conviction while giving them leverage to make stipulations. Those typically include a court-order program focused on providing counselling for the defendants or treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. The 20-week program is called the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, and it serves as an alternative to jailing the defendant or taking a hard-to-prosecute case to court.
“These are some of the hardest cases to prosecute because there's a whole relationship involved,” Meeks said. “There's always two sides to the story. Once you start hearing the other side of the story, it may be like well, did he push her? Could he be convicted of domestic violence? Probably. But the jury's also going to hear this other side of the story. So having the space to amend it is sometimes more appropriate when you can look at the situation as a fight rather than an assault, an unprovoked physical assault.”
Another option if a victim does want to leave the situation but does not want to pursue the charge is to file for a civil protection order or a no contact order, designed to keep the defendant away from the victim for up to five years. Although a temporary protection order is typically filed for the victim in a domestic violence case when it is opened, the order is cancelled when the case is dismissed, said Stacy Crook, domestic violence advocate for the Athens County Sheriff’s office.
Protection orders can be effective, but they do not provide any guarantees of protection.
“It is a piece of paper. It’s several pieces of paper, but it’s still only paper,” Crook said. “If he wants to do it, he’s going to do it. I mean, that’s not going to stop him.
“Most people abide by them to a certain degree … but some of them don’t ever get it.”
For victims who do not have much experience with the legal system, obtaining a civil protection order can be difficult. Smith said some victims, after dealing with the stress of habitual abuse, lash out at the offenders during hearings.
“She may be fearful of him if it was any other situation, but in that time she’s safe with an attorney, there’s an officer downstairs and there’s a magistrate on the bench,” Smith said. “She knows they aren’t going to let him hurt her so she’s going to finally say to him the things that he needed to hear about all the things he’s done to her through the years.”
This reaction in the hearing can give the magistrate doubt that the victim is fearful, which is a requirement for issuing a civil protection order. Incidents like these, which spring from inexperience with the legal system, make pursuing a domestic violence case daunting and seemingly impossible for victims.
“A lot of people I have met with have never ever dealt with the system,” Smith said. “It’s so scary to them. They don’t understand what it even consists of, and they need to know because they need to be aware of the system. Because it can burn them if not.”