The dark side of victims' rights

March 02, 1994

It's not uncommon for the prosecution in domestic violence cases to get no help from the victim, or even to have cases undermined by a victim who is unwilling to testify. So last week's conviction of a Baltimore County man accused of raping and beating his former girlfriend despite her testimony for the defense was a notable achievement for the county's new unit devoted to the prosecution of domestic violence cases.

Prosecutors successfully made use of testimony by police officers, emergency room staff and the victim's former roommate, as well as graphic photographs of the 18-year-old woman's swollen face and bruised body. The weight of that evidence more than counteracted her retraction of the rape charge or her denials that her testimony reflected fear of the accused man's family and friends.

If the case illustrated many of the difficulties of prosecuting cases of domestic violence, it also revealed an inherent problem with giving victims a role in influencing outcomes in trials.

We empathize with the desire of victims to be involved in the judicial process, and we certainly support their right to be kept aware of the progress of a particular case. But it is important to remember that the interests of a victim do not always neatly coincide with those of the state. This case is a perfect example.

The 18-year-old woman who did not want to see her former boyfriend sent to jail has her own reasons for supporting him in court and asserting that her previous accusation of rape was a lie. Perhaps, six months after the event, she now truly believes she was at fault and that he shouldn't be blamed for his violence. But one also has to consider the possibility that she was afraid of retribution if she didn't testify as she did. In cases like this, many motives come into play.

What is clear, however, is that this victim's personal interests did not necessarily coincide with the state's interest in obtaining a conviction and thereby helping to protect other women who might be future victims of a man capable of savage violence.

Victims' rights is a popular cry these days. But in the pursuit of justice, the state's interest -- the interest of all the people -- necessarily takes precedence.

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