Who’s at fault when domestic violence charges are dropped?

December 23, 2013
George Zimmerman during his murder trial in June. (REUTERS/Joe Burbank/Pool)
George Zimmerman during his murder trial in June. (REUTERS/Joe Burbank/Pool)

George Zimmerman and his girlfriend reportedly went to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office last week to reclaim guns that were seized from their apartment after deputies were called to investigate a domestic violence incident.

Samantha Scheibe had summoned authorities to her apartment last month, alleging that Zimmerman had threatened her with a shotgun, and he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, battery and criminal mischief.

But a few weeks later, Scheibe apparently had a change of heart. In a sworn statement, she told authorities that she “may have misspoken about certain facts” that occurred on Nov. 18, when  she told a 911 dispatcher to send help because  Zimmerman “has his gun … breaking all of my stuff. ” Not only did she no longer wish to see Zimmerman face charges, she also wrote in her statement that, “I want to be with George.” As a result, authorities decided not to go forward with the charges against the former neighborhood watch volunteer, who was acquitted last summer in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

State Attorney Phil Archer, in a press release announcing the decision not to charge Zimmerman in the domestic violence case, noted that “there was probable cause” for Seminole County sheriff’s deputies to arrest him. The release also quoted Archer as saying domestic violence is a serious matter that is “of great concern” to law enforcement and the community. But in view of Scheibe’s affidavit and refusal to cooperate, Archer concluded  that there was “no reasonable likelihood of successful prosecution.”

It was the second time in as many months that Zimmerman has been involved in an incident of alleged domestic violence. The first, in September, involved his estranged wife, Shellie. She, too, called police and alleged that Zimmerman threatened her and her father with a gun. She, too, later told police that she did not see a weapon, and authorities decided not to press charges against Zimmerman, who was never arrested in that incident.

That both women backed away from their initial allegations about the incidents with Zimmerman is not unusual, say advocates for victims of domestic violence.

Carol Wick, who runs the Harbor House of Central Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel that domestic violence cases often stall because women recant. In an interview with She The People, Wick said that half the time when cases of domestic violence are dropped the reason cited is a lack of victim or witness cooperation.

“The coercion that happens with victims in domestic violence cases is often very subtle,” she said. It’s usually not as dramatic as a death threat, she said, rather “they’ll say to them, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad,’ or ‘You’re blowing it out of proportion.’ And it’s not just the perpetrators, but the perpetrator’s family and friends or sometimes the victim’s own friends and family.” She said authorities in her area have launched a new initiative to put victims in touch with advocates almost immediately “before they get all that bad information” dissuading them from cooperating.

Wick made clear that she had no specific knowledge about the Zimmerman incidents. But she said it frustrates her when she hears people say the women “didn’t want to press charges” or “dropped the charges.” Such language, Wick said, puts the blame on the victim when, in fact, “it’s not possible for victims to press charges.” That is the responsibility of prosecutors, and Wick acknowledges that often they don’t go forward because domestic violence cases can be hard to prove.

“A lot of the time, there’s not somebody else who witnessed it, so it becomes a ‘he said, she said,’ or a ‘he said, he said,’ or a ‘she said, she said’ … So in absence of physical injury, or damage or destruction of property or external witnesses, these are really hard cases to try,” Wick said. “Good prosecutors will tell you that you have to approach domestic violence cases like homicide cases; that means assuming you will not have a victim to testify.”

Katie Ray Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, points to a set of statistics that, unfortunately, suggests most of us have been or could be in a position to be a corroborating witness for a victim of domestic violence.

“Because one in four women and one in seven men are affected by domestic violence, this really means that each and every one of us knows someone who is a victim,” said Ray, who also heads up the National Dating Abuse Hotline. “The issue affects every community. It might be your hairdresser, your co-worker, your kid’s soccer coach or teacher, the person sitting next to you at church, or your next-door neighbor.”

“We are all bystanders and have the ability to help someone who is currently suffering,” she said, adding that “one of the best things we can do is not to judge or blame the victim.”

Vanessa Williams is editor of She The People.

Vanessa Williams is a deputy national editor at The Post and edits the She The People blog. She has covered and edited local and national politics for the paper. Contact her at Vanessa.Williams@washpost.com.
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