Illustrations by Julia Kuo
I graduated from law school ready to make a difference for abused women. I failed.
I always tried to throw up before a domestic violence case. I thought it would make me feel better.
It would usually start in spurts in the days before. I'd be sitting at my desk, getting lunch, or drying my hair and all of a sudden a wave of nausea would hit me. I would remember I had a trial coming up, I would see the victim's face, and it would feel like a kick in the gut. Then it would pass. It would rev up the night before; right after I put the finishing touches on my questions, practiced my opening, and went through my trial binder for the seventh time. I would try to find something to take my mind off the trial, but there it was, a feeling small and hard, in the spot right below my belly button. In the morning I'd shower and put on a suit and get in the car and all the while the feeling would expand and move upward. A mix of fear, anticipation, and indigestion. It filled my ribcage and engulfed my heart before hitting the back of my throat—that very distinct feeling of your brain making you sick.
Unlike most other cases, a prosecutor goes into domestic violence cases ready to lose, but usually with a healthy bit of denial. No one wants to fight a losing battle. The truth is, winning a domestic violence case is a sheer miracle. It's a shooting-star combination of good police work, an on-board victim, a fair judge, a moral defense attorney, a semi-intelligent jury, and a competent prosecutor. In a lot of cases you can win with maybe two or three of those. In a domestic violence case, you need it all, and even then you can fail.
The first time I heard a jury foreperson say, "Not guilty," I forgot what the term meant. I had to remember what guilty meant, which is stupid because anyone who ever saw three minutes of any of the four-dozen legal shows on television knows what it means. When I realized what it meant—that I'd lost—it felt like someone grabbed my small intestines and squeezed hard. It's bad enough to endure it alone, but with a domestic violence case I then had to go into a small room, with no windows, where I have kept the victim for the last five hours and explain to her that I failed. In spite of my best efforts, I couldn't get a jury to believe her. As she cried and wiped her tears on her sleeve because the tissues had run out, I told her that her husband wasn't going to jail for pushing her, choking her, restraining her, and bruising her legs.
I couldn't get a jury to believe her.
Ten years ago, fresh from high school and desperate to set myself apart, I took up violence against women as my righteous cause. It evolved into an honors project my junior year—a play called The Jane Doe Project that told stories of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It was a success. It was in the newspaper. Someone with a local leftist blog called MediaMouse wrote about it. It's still the first result that comes up on a Google search of myself under my maiden name. It is outwardly the No. 1 event that defines me.
Today I feel like a fraud.
I became a prosecuting attorney after law school. It was the only thing I wanted to do with my law degree. I assumed I would be fighting the good fight: I would be giving a voice to the voiceless. I got a job in a small county in the central part of Michigan. A little over a year later, I quit. I quit for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I didn't know how to be an advocate anymore, especially for domestic violence cases.
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My first domestic violence case was a hand-me-down, stalled by a recanting victim and colleagues who smelled a defeat and kept passing it around. I was new. I had something to prove. In some ways I was convinced I could change the world if I could help this woman.
Here's what happened. A family of four—a son, a younger daughter, mom and step-dad—got into a fight. The reason for the fight didn't matter because it changed depending on whom you spoke to. Maybe the son was mouthing off. Maybe someone shoved a box at the defendant (step-dad). Someone was on top of someone else. Mom got bruises. Son had some redness. Dad was charged with assault and battery on the son and domestic violence on the mom. Everyone saw something different. Everyone had a different angle and unlike on television shows, "inuries" were just as subjective.
I described the events in my opening: The defendant had grabbed the son by the wrist and thrown him against the wall. They started to fight. The defendant kicked the son in the stomach. Mom tried to protect her son. Then the defendant put his hands on the mom's throat.
They were a nice-looking family. You always hear about how domestic violence doesn't know race or income or location, but no one really believes that. I don't know that I really believed that until I met this early-forties, thin, white mother of three. She worked as a massage therapist. They had just moved into a home together. Not a trailer, not a den with mattress on the floor. A house with multiple bedrooms they planned to paint and make their own. Her oldest son and daughter were from another relationship, but she never seemed like she was desperate for love. Her kids were kind. They loved candy and laughed when the suckers I kept in my desk turned their tongues unnaturally bright colors. The defendant was a big guy, but not intimidatingly big. He wore glasses and had a trimmed goatee. In the months these people were in my life, I couldn't get over how much they looked like a dozen other families I grew up around.
Author, after the first performance of the 'Jane Doe Project'
They were so normal.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, mom was uncooperative. She changed her story, told the defense attorney she didn't want to testify. She just wanted her husband home and was mad that she couldn't see him because of a no-contact order our office asked the judge to put in place. In retrospect, I did what might have been the worst thing for her. I convinced her to participate.
She came to my cramped office—I shared it with the other District Court attorney, separated by the typical cubical half-walls. While her kids waited in the hallway, she stared back at me, a face made of shaking stone. She set her jaw and kept her hands on her lap, looking off to the side. She was dressed like a mom, wearing jeans and a top, her hair down in that curly way that always looks wet and crunchy.
I started with a shaking voice, explaining why I wanted to talk to her, that I wanted to go over her testimony. She looked away at the wall, shaking her head in a jerky, humming motion as I talked. She wanted it all to stop. She didn't want a trial. She loved him. As she said this, she still wouldn't look at me for longer than a few seconds. I took a breath and explained what I had rehearsed over and over in my head that morning: "What he did was not OK," I explained, trying not to plead. I told her she was better than this. That he never should have put his hands on her. She was resolute, she wouldn't back down and her big dark eyes looked around the room avoiding my steady gaze.
She wanted it all to stop. She didn't want a trial. She loved him.
Maybe I should have let it go. But I didn't. Not for completely altruistic reasons. I did think I was doing what was best, but I also wanted to prove something and I wanted to beat a defense attorney I already hated.
I brought up her kids. I told her they deserved better. I told her they wouldn't want this for their mother and shouldn't see their mother like this. She finally really looked at me. Tears came, first frustrated cries, then embarrassed ones. Well past closing time, she admitted that her husband was violent in the past. That he was the one that was violent and she was trying to protect her son. She described a scene out of a Lifetime movie. She wanted to be a new person. She wanted to leave him.
Swearing in oath
It didn't matter. During the trial, the defense paraded friends and family into the courtroom to say, "Never in my life have I known this man to even get upset." And as I heard lie after lie I just wanted to stand up and yell, that the whole trial had turned into a circus full of bullshit. But under the rules of criminal procedure, "bullshit" and "obvious lies" are not grounds for objection. And the lies went on from those same friends that said on several occasions the son had physically fought with another family member. They should not have been able to say that, even if it was true. It wasn't proper evidence. But the train was off the tracks. The judge didn't know the law, didn't trust me to know what I was talking about, and the defense attorney was just savvy enough to use this to her advantage.
I lost. And the woman that I wanted to save looked at me with such confusion. Her hollow eyes looked like they hadn't smiled in weeks. Her thin, defeated curls framed her face. She looked like every small-town mom I grew up around. The walls between the courtroom and her waiting room were thin; she had heard the lies from people she called family. She wanted to know what to do next. The best I could do was tell her where to get a personal protection order
I cried the entire 45-minute drive home—dejected, heaving, ugly sobs. When I got home I couldn't get out of the car. When my now-husband came to the garage all I could do was yell, "I lost" and put my forehead back on the steering wheel. I put every part of myself into that case. I wanted her to be safe. I believed her and I believed she wanted this toxic man out of her life.
That was three years ago. I looked the mom up on Facebook a few days ago. She is back together with the man she said abused her and attacked her son. She has a picture of the whole family making faces. Pictures at the beach, pictures under a Christmas tree the year after the trial. If I didn't know anything about her or about her history, I'd say she looked good. There are a hundred studies with a half-dozen answers as to why women stay in abusive relationships, but I can't say I understand it better than anyone else. If you believe the Facebook dates, mom and defendant were back together within two months of the trial.
I got yelled at a lot when I was a prosecuting attorney. Sometimes by defense attorneys. Sometimes by people who wouldn't pay their speeding tickets. But victims in domestic violence cases yelled at me more than any other group.
Trying to remember exactly what they told me is like trying figure out the lyrics to a song in another language. They just swirl together into one big mass, like a strange Greek chorus. I know one time I was told by a woman she wanted the charges dropped because he had the keys to her car and she had to go to work. As though the whole situation was an inconvenience rather than a crime.
Multiple times I was told, "He really didn't mean it," "I shouldn't have called the cops," "This is just blown way out of proportion—it's not that big of a deal."
I was ruining their lives. I didn't know their partners. I couldn't understand their relationships. A lot of times I was relieved when they didn't pick up the phone.
I spent weeks trying to track down a victim, just to find an address for officers to serve her a subpoena. When I finally got her on the phone she called me quite a few choice names and essentially felt that my entitled ass needed to mind its own business.
I was ruining their lives. I didn't know their partners. I couldn't understand their relationships. A lot of times I was relieved when they didn't pick up the phone.
Her case went to trial anyway. She never showed. The defense attorney got under my skin enough that I tried the case anyway. I thought I had a shot. Two days earlier an independent witness that was worried enough to call the police told me he saw the woman when she left the house. He said she told him she was scared and looked terrified. I thought I could do something with that. But when this guy, a twenty-something with a thin frame and tatted-up arms got on the stand, he wouldn't say any of it. He developed some selective amnesia and said he never saw her.
I cornered him on a lunch break. He said he was scared. He said the defendant had a reputation and he didn't want to be involved. It's the 21st century and we still believe other people's relationships are not our problem. And maybe they aren't. If you aren't in a relationship, how do you know? How do you really know what is going on?
By the time I left, I wasn't just tired of the yelling; I was tired of trying to evaluate an entire relationship in the amount of time it takes to read a police report. I was jaded by the lies from both sides, and trying to decide if a relationship was abusive or mutually toxic. The truth is is as complicated and unique as the people involved.
Over and over, women came to my office or called me on the phone, usually yelling, often crying. The waIls of righteous indignation I had built fell apart. What gave me the right to decide what was best for this person? Who was I to drag her into court? Who was I to do something that resulted in the sole breadwinner in her household getting deported? Who was I to risk child protective services coming to her house again? It was easy to judge these relationships when the only thing I was doing was "raising awareness." It was an entirely different story to directly affect their lives.
I took The Jane Doe Project off my résumé before I left the prosecutor's office.
It was last Easter Sunday, driving back from my parents' house, taking a two-lane highway surrounded by farms with a trailer park up ahead. That's when I saw them at the roadside. A male and a female, late teens or early twenties, arms flailing, muffled yells heard through the closed windows of our car.
"Whoa!" I breathed, pointing at the couple. My husband slowed down, but didn't stop. We started to watch as we drove closer.
I started to ask if we should stop. We passed.
Then the guy threw a punch, and my husband laid on the horn while pulling an illegal U-turn.
In spite of my husband's current position as a prosecuting attorney and my former one, we both hesitated when we saw the couple fighting. Was it a mutual fight? Does that matter? Should we get involved? We called the police when a clear punch was thrown, but even then, there was still hesitation. I already knew it would end with an impassive police report and a girl who wouldn't want to testify against the guy she said she loved.
We waited for the police to come and I watched them fight from our parked car. Over and over, the guy would walk away and she would follow. He would turn, scream in her face, and walk away. And she would follow. I turned away for a moment and looked back to see her on the ground and him over her.
Then she stopped following him, and started walking in the other direction, tan dust smeared on her black leggings.
The boy had taken off through the field and we waited with the girl at the roadside until a disinterested officer arrived, took our statements, and told us we could go. We left as the girl's mom arrived, yelling that she had told her that boy was no good.
Ten years ago, I never would have asked a question before calling the police. It was a simple equation. Heated yelling plus any kind of physical activity equaled a relationship a woman needed to leave.
On that Easter, all I had was questions and hesitation. All I heard was the girl yelling at her mother, "I'm not going to court over this."
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