Testifying in Court Is a Nightmare for Domestic Violence Survivors
Photo by Joe Quint
Last Tuesday, Kate Ranta received a notice in the mail: In a month’s time, she’d need to fly down to Florida and appear at the Broward County courthouse to testify against her ex-husband, Thomas Maffei.
In 2012, while they were going through divorce proceedings, Maffei had shown up unannounced at Ranta's Coral Springs apartment carrying a gun. He shot her and her father twice each in front of her 4-year-old son. One bullet hit her right hand and landed in her left breast. Her father was shot in his left arm and side. Miraculously, both survived.
Now Maffei, a retired Air Force officer, faces 25 years to life in prison. But before that can happen, Ranta will have to face her ex again — this time, in court.
As soon as she received the letter, anxiety kicked in.
“I was pacing the hall, just trying to release some of the nervous energy,” she says. “I couldn’t keep still. My stomach was in knots. I couldn’t eat. I felt like my chest was tight… like something heavy was on my lungs and they couldn’t fill with air.”
Testifying in court is an intimidating experience no matter the circumstances. But for domestic violence survivors who have to face their abusers in court — many of whom, like Ranta, experience symptoms of PTSD — it’s unimaginably stressful. Not only do they have to recount some of the worst moments of their lives in front of a large audience, but the sight of someone who tried to kill them often triggers a fight-or-flight response.
“It’s way more than just dash into court, testify, and leave,” Ranta explains. “It’s so much more involved than that. It’s what goes on in our brains."
Unfortunately, the court system does nothing to accommodate them. While Florida state law allows victims of sexual assault, people under the age of 16, and anyone with an intellectual disability to provide video testimony, it doesn’t extend that same option to survivors of domestic violence.
And judges have routinely proven insensitive to the needs of domestic violence survivors. Last October, a Seminole County judge made headlines when she sentenced a woman to three days in jail because she had failed to show up in court to testify against her abuser. Told the woman had been experiencing severe anxiety, the judge replied, “You think you’re going to have anxiety now? You haven’t even seen anxiety.”
This has worrisome repercussions. Whether or not victims of domestic violence are willing to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against their abusers in court often depends largely on how much the court asks of them and how judges treat them. If they’re unwilling to cooperate, that often means the charges get dropped and their abusers go free.
A U.S. Department of Justice report notes that in Milwaukee, prosecution rates increased from 20 percent to 60 percent when courts stopped requiring victims to attend their abusers’ charging conferences within days of an arrest. In addition, a Northeastern University study found that victims were more likely to work with prosecutors if they felt a judge was firm with abusers and took a supportive and informative approach toward them.
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Ranta, who has become an advocate for domestic violence awareness, is frustrated by the lack of empathy that she sees in the courts.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that the victim has to be in the same room as the person who tried to murder her,” she says. “I think the courts just need better training on PTSD and on what going through this process does to victims. There has to be a better way.”
She’s all too familiar with the process because she’s been through it before: Her ex-husband’s trial originally began in September, but ended abruptly when Judge Raag Singhal declared it a mistrial. Jurors had submitted questions that indicated they’d been talking about the case prior to deliberations, he explained at the time.
“I was pretty much in a zombie-like state leaving the courthouse that day, just in disbelief,” Ranta remembers. “We’d gotten through so much testimony that for the jury to screw it up was just unbelievable. I was sobbing. But then I came back to my life and kind of continued on.”
At the time, she’d just started a new job, and having to request an entire week off for the trial had been an additional source of anxiety.
“I had to disclose what was going on to my new employer, which is tough because you don’t want that hanging over you when you start a new job,” she remembers. “Now I have to take another week off — I’m using my vacation time, but employers can get fatigued from that stuff, so there’s that stress.”
Ranta still remembers her shock and disbelief immediately after the shooting, when she was told it would take anywhere from three to five years for her husband to face trial. But she now feels that it’s for the better — she’s willing to be patient and wait for prosecutors to perfect their case because she wants to minimize the chances that she’ll have to testify again if her ex-husband appeals.
“A lot of survivors end up accepting some sort of plea deal where their attacker doesn’t get that much time in jail for what he did, and then they end up dealing with that person ten, fifteen years down the road,” she says. “I can see why, from my own experience, four years later, it would be so much easier to throw my hands up and say, ‘I just want it done. I don’t want to keep going through this.’ But I’ve kept myself in a place where I know I have the truth on my side. We’re not going to give up. Even after the mistrial, I said, ‘I’ll go through this 500 times. I’m not backing down.’”
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