Thursday, April 17, 2014
In 2006, Maine police recorded 5,459 domestic assaults. Seven of the 22 homicides that year were the result of domestic violence.
Fast forward a few years, and the problem hasn't gotten any better, in spite of an increase in awareness and the collaborative efforts of police, prosecutors, lawmakers and social service agencies.
There were 5,593 reported cases of domestic assault in 2012, an increase of 4.5 percent from 2011. Of the 48 homicides in Maine in 2010-11, 21 were in domestic situations. Most of the perpetrators were male, and most of the victims were female.
It was with that in mind that Maeghan Maloney, district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties, took the unusual step of seeking the arrest of Jessica Ruiz, the alleged victim and a material witness in the domestic violence case against Robert Robinson Jr.
It is rare that a district attorney will call for an arrest in those circumstances, and it should be. An arrest runs the risk of alienating or retraumatizing the witness. But it might also be the best way to ensure that a domestic violence victim does not end up as a murder statistic.
Prosecutors say Robinson beat Ruiz with a belt, then a broomstick. When the broomstick broke, they say, he continued to beat her with the broken handle while he held her throat. She got away, prosecutors allege, when he dragged her to a grave he had dug.
After his arrest, Robinson contacted Ruiz, by phone and by letter, telling Ruiz how to testify, Maloney said, and Robinson was charged with witness tampering.
Several attempts to subpoena Ruiz to testify failed, and she stopped communicating with authorities, Maloney said. (Ruiz's lawyer said her client planned to testify all along.)
Without Ruiz, Maloney said, the case was lost. A different domestic violence case was dropped in Kennebec County last month when a victim did not show to testify. So when prosecutors lost contact, Maloney sought an arrest warrant for Ruiz, under a state statute that allows a material witness to be taken into custody if "it may become impracticable to secure the presence of that person by subpoena."
A judge issued the warrant, and Ruiz was taken from her house at 11:30 on a Tuesday night and released the next day on $5,000 unsecured bail on the condition she appear at Robinson's trial.
It would have been better if Ruiz hadn't been pulled from her home late at night, or didn't have to spend the night in a processing cell at the county jail. The warrant's execution should be better coordinated between the district attorney and law enforcement. Victims are still victims, whether or not they are eager to testify.
A material-witness warrant carries more weight than a mere subpoena and forces the victim to testify. It also says that the state, not the victim, is bringing the case, taking that burden off the victim.
And it sends a message from the district attorney's office that it will pursue vigorously the prosecution of the most violent offenders.
Maloney said she would not have used the material-witness statute in a lesser case. Robinson, who is on probation and has 10 years left to serve on 10 prior felony convictions, faces a long prison sentence if convicted. The allegations against him include escalating violence and death threats, the kinds of actions that often eventually end in murder.
It is just the kind of case that warrants such an unusual step. Domestic assault cases may number in the few thousand, but the worst of the worst are only a few dozen. It will take bold moves to cut that number down. And nothing's worked yet.