Don’t Jail Crime Victims for Not Testifying

Jail Crime VictimsMy friend Deborah Cotton, a courageous activist and journalist in New Orleans, died on Tuesday from wounds that resulted from a shooting at a parade in 2013. After that incident, I had the privilege of working with her at Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, an organization that gives crime victims a voice in public policy. Deb wanted solutions to crime that prioritized safety and economic investment in the community, rather than ineffective “tough on crime” approaches. Like many others in her position, who perhaps fear retribution or that their interests and those of law enforcement don’t align, Deb had decided not to testify in the prosecution of the crime that led to her injury and ultimately her death. Her essay on that decision, written last month, is below. Although she was in and out of the hospital for years, her independence and fiery conviction never wavered. She will be enormously missed by everyone who knew her.

— Robert Rooks, vice president at Alliance for Safety and Justice

It’s been almost four years since I was shot in the stomach at a New Orleans parade on Mother’s Day. When two young men shot into the crowd, 18 others were also injured. I am a local journalist and was covering the parade for a New Orleans paper. The bullet landed in my stomach and tore through internal organs. However, when it came time for me to talk to the prosecution, I was reluctant for several reasons.

Every day people are shot, raped, robbed, beaten or hurt in New Orleans. If you are black and from the community, do you pick up the phone and report the crime? Do you open the door when the police come to ask if you witnessed the crime? What will the prosecutor do to you if you don’t cooperate?

Recently it was reported that the office of the district attorney of Orleans Parish is arresting and incarcerating victims who get scared and refuse to come to court to testify. Court Watch NOLA, a community group of volunteers who monitor New Orleans’s criminal courts, issued a report showing that in 2016 alone, our prosecutor arrested and jailed six victims after they refused to come to court to testify for the prosecution. Four of these victims were survivors of attempted murders, one victim was a rape survivor, and the last survivor had a gun aimed at her. Our district attorney’s office tried to arrest nine other crime victims for failing to cooperate, but could not find them.

Arresting victims for failing to testify for the prosecution fosters a sense of powerlessness by further victimizing the person.

Arresting victims for failing to testify for the prosecution fosters a sense of powerlessness by further victimizing the person. And it is a show of aggression by our elected officials who are supposed to be the authorities we turn to so that our sense of stability in our community can be restored. These old-school tough-on-crime prosecutors are behind the times. They approach crimes with a heavy-handedness. They ignore feedback from the community on what type of recovery is needed.

New Orleanians have legitimate cause for concern when reporting a crime. Our police department has been under a federal consent decree since 2012, which means our police department’s track record for civil rights abuses has been so bad that the federal government has had to intervene. If we can’t depend on our police force and our prosecutors to not attack or take advantage of us, how are we supposed to trust them with the “who did it” information that could get us killed?

The district attorney in New Orleans is not the only prosecutor jailing crime survivors when they get too scared to testify in court. The district attorney of Harris County, Texas, arrested and incarcerated a rape victim for failing to return to the stand to testify against her assailant. The rape victim had a mental breakdown when she was forced to testify in court; her trauma and fear were just too overwhelming, the support she was offered by the prosecution insufficient. That district attorney lost her re-election in part for jailing that rape victim. Harris County’s new district attorney, Kim Ogg, was elected based on her promise to never arrest victims for failing to come forward.

Deborah Cotton
New York Times