September 25, 2013

Bill Nemitz: I had 'no choice' but to jail victim, Maine DA says

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

We begin today with the obvious: Throwing the victim of a violent assault in the slammer isn't likely to go over too well in the court of public opinion.

Yet Kennebec County's district attorney, Maeghan Maloney, did it anyway last week -- and for that I say bravo.

"It was such a devastatingly difficult decision that I was expecting people to react negatively," said Maloney in an interview Tuesday. "Because for me, my initial reaction was negative. I had to be convinced that we had no choice."

She's talking about Jessica Ruiz, 35, of Chelsea, who one week ago today woke up in the Kennebec County jail after police arrested her on a "material witness" warrant in the domestic assault case against her live-in partner, Robert Robinson Jr.

Ruiz wasn't behind bars for long -- 17 hours after her arrest, a judge released her on $5,000 unsecured bail on the condition that she appear to testify at Robinson's trial (which has since been postponed to a yet-to-be-determined date this fall).

Still, the unusual arrest spotlights a question that has dogged prosecutors for decades: How is justice best served when a domestic-assault victim calls 911 in the heat of the moment, only to get cold feet when it comes time to testify?

A little background:

Over two days last April, Robinson, 45, allegedly beat Ruiz so hard with a broomstick that it eventually broke. He kept using it anyway.

Prosecutors say Robinson also left imprints on Ruiz's body with his belt buckle and dug a grave in the woods outside, taking Ruiz to the pit at one point and telling her that her life was over.

Robinson, who was convicted in 2002 of five counts each of gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact, has been in jail since April because the latest arrest violated his probation for the previous crimes.

He's also accused of witness-tampering (a second probation violation) by phoning Ruiz repeatedly and writing her a letter from the jail -- despite a court order to have no contact with her whatsoever.

"He actually told her how to testify," said Maloney.

Fast forward to Sept. 16, when Ruiz was supposed to meet with prosecutors to prepare for Robinson's domestic-assault trial just a few days later. She didn't show.

What's worse, Maloney said, the phone number Ruiz had used regularly to communicate with the DA's office suddenly went out of service.

So where exactly was Ruiz that day? Meeting at her own request with William Baghdoyan, Robinson's attorney.

"I asked her, 'Has anybody tried to subpoena you?'" said Baghdoyan on Tuesday.

Much to Baghdoyan's surprise, Ruiz replied no.

Baghdoyan then told her, "You don't have to talk to the DA if you don't want to. But if you are subpoenaed, you must show up in court and you must testify truthfully."

Meanwhile, back at the DA's office, two attempts to subpoena Ruiz had failed. The servers went to an address in Manchester where she took refuge in the spring, not the home in Chelsea to which she had since returned.

Around the same time, Maloney said, Ruiz told her mental health caseworker that she was going to "disappear" for awhile.

Maloney had a choice: Seek a rarely used material-witness arrest warrant for Ruiz or risk having Robinson get out of jail and come looking for Ruiz with a vengeance.

"With all of his prior assault convictions, terrorizing convictions, sexual assault convictions and the fact that he beat her for two days and showed her her grave, I couldn't take the chance that it was simply going to be a dismissal," said Maloney.

(Continued on page 2)

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