September 25, 2013

Our View: Witness' arrest justified in Chelsea abuse case

The severity of the allegations demands that all steps be taken to ensure that the trial moves ahead.

It is rare that a district attorney will call for an alleged victim of domestic violence to be arrested as a material witness, and it should be. An arrest runs the risk of alienating or retraumatizing the witness. But it might also be the best way to ensure that a domestic violence victim does not end up as a homicide statistic.

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A material-witness warrant is a statement from the district attorney’s office that it will pursue vigorously the prosecution of the most violent offenders in domestic-abuse cases.

In April, Kennebec County prosecutors say, Robert Robinson Jr. of Chelsea beat his domestic partner, Jessica Ruiz, with a belt, then a broomstick. When the broomstick broke, they say, he continued to beat her with the broken handle while he held her throat. She got away, prosecutors allege, when he dragged her to a grave he had dug.

After his arrest, Robinson contacted Ruiz, by phone and by letter, telling her how to testify, District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said; he was charged with witness tampering.

Several attempts to subpoena Ruiz to testify failed, and she stopped communicating with authorities, Maloney said. Without Ruiz, Maloney said, the case was lost. A different domestic violence case was dropped in Kennebec County last month when an alleged victim didn't show to testify.

So when prosecutors lost contact, Maloney sought an arrest warrant for Ruiz, under a state statute that allows a material witness to be taken into custody if "it may become impracticable to secure the presence of that person by subpoena."

Ruiz was taken from her house at 11:30 p.m. last Tuesday and freed the next day on $5,000 unsecured bail on the condition she appear at Robinson's trial.

It would be better if witnesses weren't pulled from their homes late at night, or didn't have to spend the night in a processing cell at the county jail. That should be better coordinated between the district attorney and law enforcement. Victims are still victims, whether or not they are eager to testify.

But a material-witness warrant, more than a subpoena, compels the victim to testify. It is a way to say that the state, not the victim, is bringing the case, taking that burden off the victim.

It is also a statement from the district attorney's office that it will pursue vigorously the prosecution of the most violent offenders.

Maloney said she would not have used the material-witness statute in a lesser case. Robinson, who is on probation and has 10 years left to serve on 10 prior felony convictions, is facing a long prison sentence if convicted. The allegations against Robinson bear all the markings -- escalating violence, death threats -- of a situation that could end in tragedy.

It is just the kind of case that warrants such an unusual step.

Domestic assault cases may number in the thousands, but the worst of the worst are only a few dozen. It will take bold moves like this one to cut that number down. And nothing's worked yet.


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