Domestic Violence Victims

By Attorney Gregg Herman
September 10, 2014

The Ray Rice case highlights an issue which always has baffled me:  The role of the victim in domestic violence cases.  An article in today’s New York Times,“Seeing Abuse, and a Pattern Too Familiar”, does a nice job in discussing the issue.

To be sure, the role of defending the abuser which Janay Rice has assumed is not uniform.  In a number of domestic violence cases I’ve handled, both as a prosecutor and as a divorce attorney, the victim has reacted as expected:  Cooperating with the prosecution and angry at the perpetrator.

Yet, it is not uncommon for the perp’s best advocate being the victim.  As a prosecutor who handled domestic violence cases for over two years, I was amazed, not just at the fact of advocacy alone, but the degree.  The victim would be angry at the police for arresting “her man” and at me for prosecuting him.  Often, the violence was extreme and frequent.  Yet, the victim would come to court arm-in-arm with the defendant and defend him with a passion exceeding that of his lawyer.

Usually, I would just dismiss the case on the theory that if the victim did not want him prosecuted, why do so.  Once, however, the violence had been so severe and frequent, that I decided to try to prove the case by calling the victim as a hostile witness.  The police testified about the victim’s res gestae statement (for any non-lawyers reading this, it means something said essentially in the heat of the moment, without opportunity to make it up and thus an exception to the hearsay rule), the defendant’s admissions and pictures of the injuries.  The victim, on the witness stand, denied that “her man” had repeatedly punched her, telling the jury that she had fallen, which was impossible given the nature and severity of the injuries.  The jury acquitted the guy in about two minutes.  It was the last time I tried to prove a domestic violence case without a cooperative victim.

Why do some victims so passionately defend the man who abused them?  The NYT article suggest that one reason may be financial.  While that may be true in the Rice case (it will be interesting to see if she stays with him now that his salary as a running back has stopped) in the cases I handled as a prosecutor, this was not a factor.  Often, in fact, the victim out earned the perpetrator.

Rather, my belief was that the reaction was due to the incredibly low level of self-esteem of the victim.   Many told me that if they lost this man they would never get another.  They desperately wanted a man and were willing to pay the price of occasionally being treated as a punching bag.

In my divorce practice, we don’t see very many severe domestic violence cases.  While the popular mythology is that domestic violence is as common in higher SES (Social Economic Status) families as with lower SES families, this is not true in my narrow experience.  Rather, the domestic violence cases which I saw as a prosecutor was frequently a factor of financial pressures, exacerbated by alcohol.   While domestic violence does occur in higher SES families, it is not nearly as frequent or as severe.  Plus, women with financial resources are far more likely to afford the counseling so necessary for a person who is willing to be physical abused as a condition of a relationship.

Mrs. Rice’s reaction is unfortunate.  It would have been nice if she had been a role model for women in similar situations by saying that being there is zero tolerance for being struck by another person.  It doesn’t matter if she spat at him or was arguing with him.  It doesn’t matter if he is the best running back in the world.  Rather, as the saying goes, the freedom to swing one’s arms stops at the start of another person’s nose.  Period.

Attorney Gregg Herman is a founding partner of Loeb & Herman S.C. in Milwaukee, WI. He practices family law exclusively, and can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 272-5632.