September 25, 2013

Bill Nemitz: I had 'no choice' but to jail victim, Maine DA says

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

We begin today with the obvious: Throwing the victim of a violent assault in the slammer isn't likely to go over too well in the court of public opinion.

Yet Kennebec County's district attorney, Maeghan Maloney, did it anyway last week -- and for that I say bravo.

"It was such a devastatingly difficult decision that I was expecting people to react negatively," said Maloney in an interview Tuesday. "Because for me, my initial reaction was negative. I had to be convinced that we had no choice."

She's talking about Jessica Ruiz, 35, of Chelsea, who one week ago today woke up in the Kennebec County jail after police arrested her on a "material witness" warrant in the domestic assault case against her live-in partner, Robert Robinson Jr.

Ruiz wasn't behind bars for long -- 17 hours after her arrest, a judge released her on $5,000 unsecured bail on the condition that she appear to testify at Robinson's trial (which has since been postponed to a yet-to-be-determined date this fall).

Still, the unusual arrest spotlights a question that has dogged prosecutors for decades: How is justice best served when a domestic-assault victim calls 911 in the heat of the moment, only to get cold feet when it comes time to testify?

A little background:

Over two days last April, Robinson, 45, allegedly beat Ruiz so hard with a broomstick that it eventually broke. He kept using it anyway.

Prosecutors say Robinson also left imprints on Ruiz's body with his belt buckle and dug a grave in the woods outside, taking Ruiz to the pit at one point and telling her that her life was over.

Robinson, who was convicted in 2002 of five counts each of gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact, has been in jail since April because the latest arrest violated his probation for the previous crimes.

He's also accused of witness-tampering (a second probation violation) by phoning Ruiz repeatedly and writing her a letter from the jail -- despite a court order to have no contact with her whatsoever.

"He actually told her how to testify," said Maloney.

Fast forward to Sept. 16, when Ruiz was supposed to meet with prosecutors to prepare for Robinson's domestic-assault trial just a few days later. She didn't show.

What's worse, Maloney said, the phone number Ruiz had used regularly to communicate with the DA's office suddenly went out of service.

So where exactly was Ruiz that day? Meeting at her own request with William Baghdoyan, Robinson's attorney.

"I asked her, 'Has anybody tried to subpoena you?'" said Baghdoyan on Tuesday.

Much to Baghdoyan's surprise, Ruiz replied no.

Baghdoyan then told her, "You don't have to talk to the DA if you don't want to. But if you are subpoenaed, you must show up in court and you must testify truthfully."

Meanwhile, back at the DA's office, two attempts to subpoena Ruiz had failed. The servers went to an address in Manchester where she took refuge in the spring, not the home in Chelsea to which she had since returned.

Around the same time, Maloney said, Ruiz told her mental health caseworker that she was going to "disappear" for awhile.

Maloney had a choice: Seek a rarely used material-witness arrest warrant for Ruiz or risk having Robinson get out of jail and come looking for Ruiz with a vengeance.

"With all of his prior assault convictions, terrorizing convictions, sexual assault convictions and the fact that he beat her for two days and showed her her grave, I couldn't take the chance that it was simply going to be a dismissal," said Maloney.

Back to Baghdoyan, who argues that the DA blew it on the subpoenas and that Robinson, trial or no trial, would have stayed in jail on his probation violations and other charges.

Back to Maloney, who says that without Ruiz's testimony, any and all reasons for keeping Robinson behind bars (the probation violations, after all, were triggered by the latest criminal charges) quickly evaporate.

We could go on, but the bottom line is clear: The more distance Ruiz puts between herself and the witness stand, the greater the chance she'll be back in the emergency room -- or worse.

Maloney, predictably, has taken flak from many quarters since last week -- including those who say her office didn't try hard enough to serve the subpoenas.

That may be, although the suddenly out-of-service phone, the no-show at the DA's office and the impromptu chat with the defense attorney clearly suggest the state's star witness was in free-fall only days before she was to take the stand.

There's a bigger question here, however -- one that wasn't lost on the directors of the Family Violence Project when they gave Maloney a unanimous vote of confidence Monday evening: Should a victim of abuse be the sole arbiter in deciding whether her abuser gets prosecuted or gets "another chance?"

Or, in extreme cases, should the state step in and protect a victim not only from her abuser, but also from herself?

Maloney, to her credit, has opted for the latter.

Last fall, before she was elected district attorney on a platform that included "zero tolerance" for dropping domestic-abuse cases, Maloney attended an anti-domestic violence "Speak Out" event in Waterville.

One woman there spoke about the horrible abuse she had suffered and displayed X-rays of her broken pelvis and arm. Through it all, she said, "there was never a prosecution" of her abuser.

"Why not?" Maloney later asked her one-on-one.

The woman replied that at the time, she was completely powerless -- despite the hospital stays, the surgeries and other trauma, she remained "completely under his control" until one day she finally found the strength to leave and not look back. "I wish the state had stepped in. I wish they had taken over," she told Maloney. "I just couldn't make the decision that was best for me and best for my family."

Maybe Ruiz feels that woman's pain -- and maybe she doesn't.

Maybe she fully intended to show up in court at the appointed time -- and maybe she didn't.

But as Maloney tightropes between bad politics and good justice, she at least hasn't lost sight of the real goal here:

Love Robert Robinson Jr., hate him or somewhere in between, Jessica Ruiz needs to testify.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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