Advocates decry prosecution of domestic violence victim

Woman is sentenced for lying in federal case against boyfriend

April 02, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Calvin Woodard Jr. was a four-time convicted felon when police arrested him in December 1999 for striking his girlfriend with a .40- caliber Glock handgun - exactly the kind of career criminal prosecutors have hoped to bring down with beefed-up enforcement of federal gun laws.

But in building a case against Woodard last year for illegally possessing a gun, federal prosecutors ended up prosecuting his girlfriend and drawing criticism from advocates for domestic violence victims.

Joann L. Gilliam, 44, of Glen Burnie was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison March 22 for lying to the grand jury investigating the gun case against Woodard and trying to coax a friend into doing the same.

Gilliam called city police to her then-home in Northeast Baltimore on Dec. 5, 1999, saying Woodard had assaulted her with a gun. But as the case moved through the court system, Gilliam changed her story.

She testified that the gun was one she had found in the gutter and she never had seen Woodard with a weapon. Then, she asked a friend to back up her story.

Victims advocates say about half of abused women recant their story when a case goes to court. They are dismayed that federal prosecutors pursued a perjury case against Gilliam.

"It's a very bewildering and troubling case," said Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women in Baltimore.

Federal prosecutors, however, say they acted properly.

No Justice Department policy discourages calling domestic violence victims as witnesses in criminal cases. And in Woodard's case, prosecutors said they gave Gilliam every opportunity to tell the truth and every protection, even granting her immunity for her grand jury testimony.

At each step, though, they said she thwarted the investigation.

"You just can't break the law like that and think because you were in a tough relationship that excuses this kind of conduct," said Stephen M. Schenning, the acting U.S. attorney for Maryland.

Schenning said investigators needed full cooperation to win a conviction against Woodard, 36, of Baltimore, who had served a prison sentence for armed robbery and been convicted three other times, for disorderly conduct, drunken driving and another domestic battery charge.

While he was in the Talbot County jail awaiting trial on the felon-in-possession charge last year, Woodard also was charged in the killing of another inmate after a skirmish over television. That manslaughter case is pending in state court.

A jury convicted Woodard in the federal gun case last year, and U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis sentenced him in February to 10 years in prison. The judge weighed the assault against Gilliam, which started the chain of events, in to Woodard's sentence.

Federal prosecutors didn't want to prosecute Gilliam, who pleaded guilty in September to perjury and obstruction of justice. But they said her actions were so blatant that they had little choice.

"We tried everything we could to get her truthful, honest cooperation," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie S. Greenberg, who works regularly with violent crime victims and prosecuted Woodard and Gilliam.

Gilliam was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in Woodard's case May 3 last year - a standard move by federal prosecutors - but she didn't show up. Two weeks later, she was arrested on a bench warrant. After a grant of immunity, she testified that the gun police found the night of the assault was one she had found lying in the street near her home - not Woodard's.

She told the grand jury that a friend, Karen Francis, could back up her story. Then she set off to find Francis, according to court records. But investigators reached Francis first, and she agreed to tape record her conversations with Gilliam.

On the recorded phone call, Gilliam tells her friend, "I don't know if you gonna agree to it or not, but I need you to tell a big lie," according to an 18-page transcript.

Gilliam does not say during the conversation that she lied out of fear of Woodard - only to prevent criminal charges against herself.

"There wasn't nobody hurt with the gun or nothing like that," Gilliam said, according to the transcript. Later she added, "Karen, I'm in some deep [expletive]."

Gilliam, who must report to prison late this month, did not return a phone call seeking comment. She told The Washington Post last week that she had lied to the grand jury, but she complained, "I'm doing time for something he did."

Alexander, of the House of Ruth, said victims' advocates are anxious to help Gilliam. Because she voluntarily pleaded guilty, though, few avenues are open for an appeal. "I'm just not sure what help looks like in this case," Alexander said.

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