September 20, 2013

Jailing of alleged Maine victim rare but legal

Arrested at her Chelsea home, Jessica Ruiz was held for 17 hours as a material witness.

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Jessica Ruiz was arrested at her Chelsea home Tuesday night and held for 17 hours. The charge? Nothing.

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Robert A. Robinson

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WHAT ALLOWS ARREST WITHOUT CHARGE?

The state statute allowing the arrest of a “material witness” says “if it appears by affidavit that the testimony of a person is material in any criminal proceeding and if it is shown that it may become impracticable to secure the presence of that person by subpoena, the court may order the arrest of that person.”

A court may require that person to give bail for their appearance as a witness, utilizing the same standards for release as for a defendant.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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