The Chelsea woman authorities jailed last week to ensure that she testify against the domestic partner who is charged with attacking her had been contacted by the man after his arrest and met with his attorney.
Jessica Ruiz, 35, who prosecutors say was savagely beaten for two days in April by Robert Robinson Jr., 45, was held as a material witness in the case for 17 hours, after multiple attempts to ensure her appearance at Robinson’s trial failed, said District Attorney Maeghan Maloney.
Maloney’s office obtained the arrest warrant, in a rare legal maneuver that prosecutors in Maine said is used only as a last resort.
On Wednesday afternoon, a judge ordered Ruiz released on $5,000 unsecured bail with the condition that she appear at Robinson’s trial, which was scheduled for Friday but was continued until next month.
Prosecutors had fostered a relationship with Ruiz through victims’ advocates and a local anti-domestic violence organization, said Maloney, the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties.
But Robinson, who has a violent criminal past, contacted Ruiz, by phone and letter, after his arrest in an attempt to influence her testimony, Maloney said. Ruiz even agreed to meet with Robinson’s attorney, William Baghdoyen, who confirmed the meeting.
Maloney said Ruiz then stopped communicating with authorities.
About a week before the trial was to begin, Ruiz told her home medical aides that she was going to disappear for a while, Maloney said. Shortly after that, Maloney’s office issued the warrant for Ruiz’s arrest.
“This is a case where we can’t just let the victim decide whether or not a prosecution is going to take place,” said Maloney. “It’s the option of last resort.”
Ruiz could not be contacted for comment Monday.
Lisa Whittier, the lawyer appointed to represent her at a video arraignment last week, told the Kennebec Journal that the incident was “outrageous conduct on the part of the state.”
Charges of witness-tampering are pending against Robinson, whose attorney disputed Maloney’s account but acknowledged that Ruiz met with him.
While prosecutors can have difficulty persuading victims to testify against their attackers, victims’ advocates, attorneys and domestic violence policymakers said in interviews that arresting victims is highly unusual, and may retraumatize them.
“Given that the end result of this action was that the case was continued and she was sent home with a subpoena to return to testify, we need to ask if that subpoena could have been delivered in a less traumatic way than a late-night arrest and incarceration,” said Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. “I’m extremely concerned about any action like this that constrains victims’ free choice.”
The competing interests of prosecuting an alleged attacker or allowing a victim to walk away from a case — perhaps only to be killed later by the defendant — weighed heavily on Maloney.
In Maine, there is no way to be certain of the number of times victims have been arrested as so-called material witnesses in their own cases, Maloney said, but six of the state’s eight prosecutorial districts have acknowledged taking that or similar legal steps to compel witnesses to attend proceedings to testify.
Christopher Almy, who has been the district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties since 1985, couldn’t remember doing it.
But other prosecutors have. Todd Collins, who has been Aroostook County’s district attorney since 2011 and a prosecutor there since 2002, said he can “count on one hand” the number of times his office has arrested an alleged victim of domestic violence.
He said it would be done in two situations: if authorities can’t find a witness to subpoena or if the witness is subpoenaed and skips the defendant’s court date.
“It’s a tool that has been historically available to prosecutors and the court to ensure the integrity of the process can be maintained,” Collins said.
Collins and Almy, like Maloney, said the option should be used only in the most dangerous circumstances.
“Prosecutors have to be vigilant in making sure that they have done everything that they can do,” Almy said. “It’s a tough call, no doubt about it.”
Until 2004, victims of domestic violence in many states could give police recorded or written statements that prosecutors could use as evidence if the victims were not in court to testify or be cross-examined by defense attorneys.
But a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 strengthened defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to confront their accusers in person.
“Based on that reality, prosecutors got fairly clever in going forward and holding batterers to account without testimony of a victim,” said Deb Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago who is a former prosecutor of domestic violence cases in New York City.
Other evidence, such as 911 calls or photographs of injuries or the scene of an attack, could be used to build a case against a defendant, Tuerkheimer said, in the absence of a victim’s testimony.
Such “evidence-based prosecution” would have been difficult in Ruiz’s case, Maloney said, so the account of Ruiz was critical, and Maloney feared she would be in grave danger if Robinson were to go free.
“We’ve become more aware of homicides caused by domestic violence,” Maloney said. “We can see the pattern that led up to it.”
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