AUGUSTA — Jessica Ruiz was arrested at her Chelsea home Tuesday night and held for 17 hours. The charge? Nothing.
She was held as a material witness in a criminal case. The defendant, Robert A. Robinson, allegedly abused her viciously for two days in April.
The action to jail Ruiz, an alleged victim, is legal but rare.
It was sought by the Kennebec County District Attorney’s office and approved after a hearing at which only the prosecutor’s side was represented.
Lisa Whittier, the lawyer appointed to represent Ruiz at a Wednesday video arraignment, said the incident was “outrageous conduct on the part of the state.”
Ruiz doesn’t have a criminal history. Before Tuesday, she hadn’t been to jail.
“They parked down the street, they pounded on her door and they arrested her,” Whittier said.
Maeghan Maloney, district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties, said she had Ruiz arrested only after consulting with the Family Violence Project, the local agency that aids victims of domestic violence.
Maloney said if Ruiz didn’t testify at Robinson’s trial, the case could be dismissed and Robinson could be freed, because Ruiz is the only witness to his abuse.
During Robinson’s alleged two-day beating of Ruiz in the spring, Maloney said, the man beat Ruiz so heavily with a broomstick that it broke. He continued to hit her with it.
There also are pictures of imprints on Ruiz’s body where Robinson struck her with a belt repeatedly, Maloney said.
At one point, the district attorney said, Robinson dug a grave in the woods, took Ruiz to it and told her that her life was over.
“What it came to is that I would rather have to explain why she was arrested than why she was dead,” Maloney said. “It is not the course that we want to take, but it’s the course we have to take in the most dangerous cases where the victim is in danger of being killed.”
WAS RUIZ SAFE?
Maloney’s decision marks a change in policy for the district attorney’s office. She won election last year touting a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence.
She said in instances involving no physical injuries, an arrest under the material witness statute would not be sought. The allegations in this incident involve brutal acts, however, and Robinson, 45, of Chelsea, has a long criminal history.
He’s listed on the Maine Sex Offender Registry as a lifetime offender as a result of convictions in 2002 on five charges each of gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact. Robinson remains on probation and has 10 years not served on that sentence.
By failing to turn up, Ruiz, 35, who is living at Robinson’s home, could have jeopardized the case, Maloney said.
While Whittier, Ruiz’s lawyer, said her client wasn’t aware of any efforts to subpoena her, Maloney said Kennebec County sheriff’s deputies tried to serve Ruiz with two subpoenas before seeking the arrest warrant.
The warrant was based on an affidavit by Assistant District Attorney Frayla Schoenfeld, who said she believed Ruiz would fail to appear at the trial.
Schoenfeld said Ruiz contacted the district attorney’s office and set up an appointment with Schoenfeld on Monday but did not turn up. Ruiz previously appeared for appointments.
“If we don’t prosecute him and the case is dismissed, there’s a danger of her being killed,” Maloney said. “If she doesn’t testify, then he’ll be out of jail.”
William Baghdoyan, who represents Robinson, called that “a specious argument,” since Robinson is being held on separate charges.
On Wednesday, while Ruiz was in custody, officers served her with a subpoena ordering her to come to Robinson’s trial Friday on three counts of domestic violence.
She also was served with a second subpoena ordering her to be available Oct. 16 through Nov. 1, to testify in a second case against Robinson. He is charged with tampering with a victim – Ruiz – and violating a condition of release for allegedly trying to influence Ruiz to testify falsely.
‘A TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE’
When Ruiz was taken to jail, she remained in the intake area the entire time and was placed in a processing cell with two other women, said Capt. Marsha Alexander, corrections administrator at the Kennebec County jail.
On Wednesday afternoon, a judge ordered Ruiz released on $5,000 unsecured bail with the condition that she turn up at Robinson’s jury-waived trial Friday. The prosecutor had sought $5,000 cash bail.
Whittier, Ruiz’s lawyer, called the arrest and jailing “a traumatic experience for an alleged victim.”
“She fully intended to testify if subpoenaed,” Whittier said. “She wasn’t dodging a subpoena.”
When Ruiz was jailed, Robinson was moved to the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor. Baghdoyan said that was unnecessary and interfered with his ability to prepare for Robinson’s trial today.
However, Baghdoyan said Thursday that’s not why he’s incensed about her arrest. He said he always expected her to testify.
He said, “She’s gone through unnecessary trauma. She is a very nice young woman, and she has been treated shabbily.”
Geoffrey Rushlau, district attorney in Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo counties, has been a prosecutor for 33 years and said Thursday he does not recall ever seeking an arrest of a victim as a material witness.
The decision to hold Ruiz astonished Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “If the concern was for the witness’ safety, it seems there should be other ways of keeping her safe,” he said.
Deborah Shepherd, executive director of the Family Violence Project, said in a statement Thursday that arresting a victim isn’t unprecedented.
“Sometimes, sadly, this may be the most appropriate choice,” Shepherd said. “Abusers need to be held accountable, and part of that accountability is effective prosecution.”
Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org