Domestic battery cases difficult for criminal justice system

WHITLEY COUNTY — Domestic violence, domestic battery, rape, sexual battery and sexual assault crimes are the most problematic crimes to prosecute and the most dangerous situations for police officers in the field, officials say.

These crimes are not only destructive to the lives of the victim and the abuser, but also frustrating for prosecutors and officers.

Domestic violence and sexual crimes are not new to Whitley County; however, more cases are going through the Whitley County Courthouse now than ever before.

“In the last two years, I’ve seen an unpleasant uptick in the number of rape cases, including spousal rape cases,” said Prosecutor D.J. Sigler.

It’s a perception supported by Columbia City Police Officer Brette Ayres, the department’s representative for the Domestic Violence Task Force.

“It is important for people to understand that it is absolutely possible and it absolutely happens that spouses rape one another,” said Sigler.

It is easy for the public to perceive this as Whitley County putting away more domestic violence criminals and rapists and keeping victims safe, but these cases are more complex than the general public might believe.

“I would say in the winter months we have a lot more of them (domestic violence calls). Which would make sense, I think, just because people don’t go outside as much and they’re cooped up in the house together all the time,” said Ayres.

Sigler is “constantly” prosecuting domestic violence, rape and sexual battery crimes. Due to the length of investigations and the pressure on the victims, cases do not speed through court.

“In more cases than not, in my opinion, we have a recanting witness. Or we have a witness that, after calling the police, and signing a battery affidavit, for a variety of reasons, wants to revise or reverse their story,” said Sigler.

Though frustrating, officials say it’s often not the victim’s fault. Sigler and Ayres both referred to the “pressure on these victims” as the driving force behind recanted testimonies and refusal to comply with the police.

“In the context of male on female violence, a lot of these women are young mothers who have children to consider — who have their livelihoods to consider. They’ve been making a home, taking care of the children, perhaps working a little bit part-time, but they aren’t responsible, necessarily, for a large share of the family’s income,” said Sigler.

There is economic pressure, financial pressure and emotional pressure on victims of these crimes. Almost all of these crimes occur between a victim and an abuser who are emotionally attached, making it “extraordinarily difficult” for the victims.

Domestic violence is the most dangerous crime a police officer can go into in the field “because as much as they (victims) are afraid of the spouse that’s hurting them, they also love them,” Ayres said.

“They (victims) kind of battle back and forth between ‘do I protect my husband or wife or do I let the police take care of them like I called them here to do?’”

The internal battle for the victims does not end after an arrest is made.

Cases occur where there is a victim who is more committed to the defendant than to the criminal case, and Sigler understands that.

“I understand that. I empathize with it. It doesn’t make it less frustrating, based upon what I know and I feel my responsibility to the community is. But at the same time, I don’t blame [them],” said Sigler.

The frustration for prosecution arises with the misperception about who can press charges. Prosecutor Sigler is the only person in the county who can press charges in Whitley County. The choice is not the victim’s.

“With that understood, what I tell my domestic violence victims is, ‘I can appreciate where they’re coming from, and I want to be respectful of their wishes, but at the same time, if I have probable cause to believe a battery to a spouse has occurred … I’m going to prosecute that to the fullest extent of the law,’” said Sigler.

While the victims feel pressured to recant their testimonies, there is also a pressure from the legal side to prevent recidivist domestic violence.

“You think you’re giving them this plain, black-and-white plan of, ‘if you leave, you’ll be safe – if you stay, you’re going to keep getting hurt.’ But there’s a lot of gray in between that,” said Ayres.

All parties feel pressure — pressure to protect the victim, pressure to prosecute the abuser, pressure to prevent getting calls from the same house, pressure to defend loved ones.

The failure to cooperate with law enforcement in these cases is understandable. Ayres is working to try to incorporate training on victim blaming into the domestic violence training for police so officers can better deal with habitual abusers and victims. Sigler takes into account the victim’s wishes when prosecuting.

But these ultimately weigh on law enforcement as well as victims.

“You’re a human being before you’re a prosecutor. So you just ache for these women who are forced to endure something that no person should have to endure. It makes you want to do your best to find a good resolution,” said Sigler.

Officers and prosecutors face their frustration surrounding what feels like an inability to defend victims — victims who say, “I don’t want to prosecute, I just wanted someone to come and stop it that night.” And it takes a toll on them.

“Ultimately, the things that keep me up at night, are the thoughts that we don’t do enough, and we’ve got a lady who sits in that chair and says, ‘I don’t want a protective order. I don’t want this prosecution to go forward. I don’t want to cooperate.’ And three weeks later I have a dead body,” said Sigler.

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