On Monday, the wife of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, called 911. “[George] continuously has his hand on his gun and he keeps saying ‘get closer,’” she told a 911 operator and warned her father to get inside the house before Zimmerman opened fire. “I’m really really afraid,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s capable of.”
Despite the terrifying moment caught on tape, Shellie Zimmerman opted not to press charges against her husband, who she’s currently in the process of divorcing. “We have no victim, no crime,” said Police Chief Steve Bracknell.
While the details of this altercation are still unknown, too often, victims of domestic violence drop or opt not to press charges. They fear retaliation from their assailants and complications from a long drawn out trial process, or they’re pressured to drop the cases by friends, family, and the abusers themselves.
“I think that it’s important to understand this particular situation,” Rita Smith, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told ThinkProgress. “There’s already been such notoriety. If I were her, I would have concerns as well about moving forward.”
But there is some hope — at least in Florida — that charges can be brought against George Zimmerman without Shellie’s involvement. In that state, an appeals court held “the decision to prosecute does not lie with the victim of a crime.” Rather, the state’s attorney decides whether or not to review a case.
Domestic violence laws vary immensely based on where a victim lives. “There are states that will incarcerate a woman for not participating” in a trial against her abuser, Smith said. In other states, a victim doesn’t need to be heard from at all.
Federally, there have been no moves to standardize a victim’s involvement in bringing charges against their abusers. “The only way we’d have a national law about this is if it’s crimes committed on national lands or tribal lands,” Smith pointed out. “The only way the federal government would get involved would be if civil rights were being violated.”
The federal government does bar domestic abusers from obtaining firearms, but the law is porous at best, and many abusers are still successful in obtaining a deadly weapon. Domestic violence victims also lack federal protections against employment discrimination and access to housing.
But as with these other gaps in protections for domestic violence victims, there is no obvious logic for why victims should have to be involved in prosecutions if they feel it makes them unsafe. “They prosecute murders all the time without a quote-unquote witness,” Smith said. “They can do it without victims too”