After a season dominated by the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice case, the offseason began with a major development in another domestic violence case involving one of the league’s high-profile players.
Prosecutors in North Carolina on Monday dropped domestic violence charges against Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy after the victim, identified as Nicole Holder, decided not to testify as part of the case. Holder had previously testified in the original case that led to Hardy’s conviction in July, relaying the harrowing details of an assault in which she said Hardy choked her, threw her on a pile of assault weapons, and threatened to kill her. Holder had told prosecutors that she did not want to testify in Hardy’s appeal; prosecutors and police were unable to find her to deliver a subpoena.
Much of the focus after the decision to drop charges turned to what the NFL would do or on seemingly blaming Hardy for not testifying — amid reports of a out-of-court financial settlement between Hardy and Holder, and the Charlotte Observer searched her Facebook page and found that she had been “snowmobiling in Vail, Colo., then photographed in New York City’s Grand Central Station”; others wrote that Holder “left a trail of social media extravagance over the last several months, during which she seems to be doing some not-inexpensive traveling.”
But the nature of the Hardy case’s ending highlights what victim advocates say is one of the most pressing issues facing the justice system charged with prosecuting domestic violence cases: why do victims like Holder so often choose not to testify, thereby making it nearly impossible to secure convictions?
“This is a big, big issue,” said Stephanie Avalon, a resource specialist at the Battered Women’s Justice Project, an organization that trains and consults on how to address domestic violence in the justice system. In all sorts of domestic violence cases, she said, “it’s very difficult to get victims’ engagement.”
The decision not to testify hardly makes Holder unique, and of the four victim’s advocates and attorneys I spoke to for this piece, none said they were surprised by Holder’s choice to avoid taking the stand. That poses major problems to prosecutors seeking convictions. According to the Department of Justice, victims’ refusal to cooperate is “the prime reason prosecutors drop or dismiss domestic violence cases,” and two separate Ohio studies found that a victim’s failure to appear in court was the primary reason for dropping charges in 70 percent of cases that were dismissed. In North Carolina, where Hardy was prosecuted, another study found that “victim opposition was reported as the key factor in reducing the likelihood of prosecution.”
With so much focus on domestic violence involving NFL players and the desire to hold them accountable, it might seem frustrating that Holder chose not to testify. But victims of domestic violence “have to make the decision that is best for them,” said Dawn Dalton, the executive director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP) at George Washington University. “That’s all the responsibility that they have: for their safety, their emotional well-being, and their own physical health.”
There are various reasons victims choose not to do testify in domestic violence cases, including the fact that reliving the experience can be embarrassing and even re-traumatizing. One of the biggest reasons they avoid court, though, is the fear of retribution from their accusers, that testifying will only further jeopardize their safety (it’s unclear why Holder didn’t testify, though she told prosecutors in November that she did not want to go through another trial and testified that she originally feared going to the police because Hardy said he would kill her if she “took food out of his family’s mouth”).
“Especially where there’s re-occurring domestic violence, it’s just further victimizing to force that person to come to court without knowing whether the outcome will put him or her in greater danger,” said Julia Saladino, a WomensLaw staff attorney at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
That is especially true because many domestic violence victims have seen little in the way of results in previous experiences with law enforcement and the legal system. Studies have shown that between 40 and 60 percent of offenders arrested on domestic violence charges re-offend within 30 months, and a justice system that often fails to successfully monitor abusers and enforce restraining orders — and also fails to rehabilitate and reform offenders instead of punishing them — doesn’t always inspire confidence.
“(Victims) may not be holding out much hope that it’s worth it,” Avalon said. “And in a lot of cases, especially with misdemeanors, she’s right.”
And then there is the aspect of how they are often treated by law enforcement officials who ask the wrong questions or don’t always take the claims seriously. That can be especially true in cases involving celebrities or famous athletes who invite more media attention to a case.
“The system is not supportive to victims,” Dalton said. “And that can very much color the lens that you’re looking through in terms of, does it make sense for me to put my time and my emotional energy and engage in something in which I don’t feel respected or heard?”
When their testimony is so crucial to securing a conviction, it can be easy to blame victims for avoiding court (“We need that participation in order to gain justice for not only victims of domestic violence, but for this community,” Charlotte District Attorney Andrew Murray said Monday). But the burden of getting more victims to testify — or building cases that can succeed without their testimony — falls not on the victims but on the justice system, advocates said.
“I don’t think it’s any one victim’s responsibility to change the entire system,” Saladino said. “It’s not his or her fault that an abuser made them the victim of that crime.”
Law enforcement officials need to conduct “better investigations and evidence collection so that they don’t have to rely on victim’s testimony in order to get a conviction,” Avalon said. Some states are trying to address those problems by instituting training programs that help investigators and police officers understand the questions they need to ask victims on first response and the practices that need to be in place to carry out proper investigations. These assessments, like one developed in Maryland, gauge the risk of further danger, including homicide, to victims to help law enforcement and community advocates better protect them going forward. After early successes, other states have recently adopted similar programs.
Similarly, Avalon pointed to evidence showing that providing early advocate support to victims can improve experiences within the system. Advocates can help victims navigate and understand the legal system and the potential outcomes of bringing charges, all while providing support to victims and helping them avoid the tedious nature of court proceedings. That too can improve the likelihood of victims seeing cases through. In Denver, for instance, studies have shown that having law enforcement officials make direct connections between domestic violence victims and community-based advocates in the early stages of a case both “promotes engagement with the criminal justice system” and has “a positive impact on women’s well-being.”
Better investigative practices and stronger support systems not only help reduce the importance of victim testimony in domestic violence cases by supplementing it with other evidence, they also mean that “the victim is not as resistant” to actually testifying “because she feels more supported,” Dalton said.
“There are systems in place that are supposed to be doing their role effectively,” she added. “If we want victims to engage in prosecution, there has to be more support provided to them throughout the process.”
Awareness about what needs to change to better serve domestic violence victims — and encourage their participation in the legal system — “ebbs and flows” with institutional changes and societal pressure, Dalton said. That, perhaps, makes it imperative that high-profile cases like Rice’s and Hardy’s bring awareness not just to their individual cases or the issues in them (or even to how the NFL will respond), but to the major underlying problems that affect millions of other people facing the same issues each year.