September 20, 2013

An arrest on no charge: State law, used rarely for victims, lands allegedly battered Chelsea woman in jail

Prosecutors say Jessica Ruiz might risk death if she fails to testify at her alleged abuser’s Friday trial, but her lawyer cites “outrageous conduct” by Kennebec County’s district attorney.

By Betty Adams
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA  Jessica Ruiz was arrested at her Chelsea home Tuesday night and held for 17 hours. Her charge? Nothing.

Robert Robinson Jr.

Contributed photo

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The state statute allowing the arrest of a “material witness” says “if it appears by affidavit that the testimony of a person is material in any criminal proceeding and if it is shown that it may become impracticable to secure the presence of that person by subpoena, the court may order the arrest of that person.”

A court may require that person to give bail for their appearance as a witness, utilizing the same standards for release as for a defendant.

She was held as material witness in a criminal case. The defendant, Robert A. Robinson, allegedly abused her viciously for two days in April.

The action to jail Ruiz, an alleged victim, is legal but rare.

It was sought by the Kennebec County district attorney's office and approved after a hearing at which only the prosecutor's side was represented.

The action has defense attorneys seeing red.

Lisa Whittier, the lawyer appointed to represent Ruiz at a Wednesday video arraignment, said the incident was "outrageous conduct on the part of the state."

Ruiz doesn't have a criminal history. Before Tuesday, she hadn't been to jail.

"They parked down the street, they pounded on her door and they arrested her," Whittier said.

Maeghan Maloney, district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties, said she pursued the unusual measure of having Ruiz arrested only after consulting with the Family Violence Project, the local agency that aids victims of domestic violence.

Maloney said if Ruiz didn't testify at Robinson's trial the case could be dismissed and Robinson could be freed, because Ruiz is the only witness to his abuse.

During Robinson's alleged two-day beating of Ruiz in the spring, Maloney said the man beat Ruiz so heavily with a broomstick that it broke. He continued to hit her with it.

There also are pictures of imprints on Ruiz's body where Robinson struck her with a belt repeatedly, Maloney said.

At one point, the district attorney said Robinson dug a grave in the woods, took Ruiz to it and told her that her life was over.

"What it came to is that I would rather have to explain why she was arrested than why she was dead," Maloney said. "It is not the course that we want to take, but it's the course we have to take in the most dangerous cases where the victim is in danger of being killed."

Was Ruiz safe?

Maloney's decision marks a change in policy for the district attorney's office. She won election last year touting a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence.

"We certainly are taking a more aggressive stance on domestic-violence cases that have the highest potential for lethality or homicide," Maloney said Thursday.

She said in instances involving no physical injuries, an arrest under the material witness statute would not be sought.

The allegations in this incident involve brutal acts, however, and Robinson, 45, of Chelsea, has a long criminal history.

He's listed on the Maine Sex Offender Registry as a lifetime offender as a result of convictions in 2002 on five charges each of gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact. Robinson remains on probation and has 10 years not served on that sentence.

By failing to turn up, Ruiz, 35, who is living at Robinson's home, could have jeopardized the case, Maloney said.

While Whittier, Ruiz's lawyer, said her client wasn't aware of any efforts to subpoena her, Maloney said deputies from the Kennebec County Sheriff's Office attempted to serve Ruiz with two subpoenas before seeking the arrest warrant.

The warrant was based on an affidavit by Kennebec County Assistant District Attorney Frayla Schoenfeld, who said she believed Ruiz would fail to appear at the trial, originally set for Friday but now scheduled for October.

Schoenfeld said Ruiz contacted the district attorney's office and set up a Sept. 16 appointment with Schoenfeld but failed to turn up. Ruiz previously appeared for appointments.

"If we don't prosecute him and the case is dismissed, there's a danger of her being killed," Maloney said. "If she doesn't testify, then he'll be out of jail."

(Continued on page 2)

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