Prosecutors, advocates tasked with myriad complications in family violence cases

Hours before Willie J. "Mike" Davis shot Crystal Harris in the head, Harris called the police.

On April 7, 2000, the 18-year-old mother told officers that the 31-year-old man threw a brick through her window that morning. But the officers, who had responded to at least two incidents at the residence before, didn't make an arrest, District Attorney Julia Slater recalled.

"Because she had called police so many times and dropped the charges every time they said 'Why don't you go to the Municipal Court and take your own warrant out?'" Slater said.

That day, Davis told several people he was going to shoot Harris. As she was getting into a friend's car, Davis fired at Harris several times after saying to her 7-year-old cousin, "See what the b---- make you do?"

She lived, and the car wasn't damaged. No one called the police again.

"Before midnight she was dead," Slater said. "He was holding her baby on his hip as he shot her in the head."

Harris' case illustrates the many complications facing domestic violence victims, according to multiple interviews with victims advocates and Muscogee officials. Cases are often tied by victim's unwillingness to press charges, and the victim's response to law enforcement is often influenced by the abuser.

Hope Harbour officials said some victims will call police when the abuser has a violent outburst. But once in court, the victim will often ask to drop the charges -- sometimes out of fear of retaliation, sometimes hoping that things will get better.

"Between that arrest and by the time they get to court, how many times has he talked to her from jail and said, 'Oh, baby, I'm so sorry. I'll never drink again,' or 'I'll go to counseling,'" Hope Harbour Assistant Director Lindsey Reis said. "And that's real hard for them because she wants him to get better."

The decision to leave a violent relationship -- much less report the abuser -- is seldom easy. Over the years, abusers often isolate victims from family members, friends and job opportunities.

"If you've got three kids and two of them are in diapers and you haven't worked in 10 years, how are you going to take care of those babies?" Reis said. "How are you going to get those diapers? Where are you going to go?"

Though domestic violence shelters can provide temporary housing for victims, many shelters have to provide referrals or put victims up in hotels because the demand for assistance is so overwhelming. The Crisis Center of Russell County, which only has one room at its temporary location, has had to turn away 400 women and children in the two years since the primary building closed for renovations.

"We still provide them the other resources, but we don't have shelter. So, what they have to do is make other arrangements," Center Treasurer Denise Taylor said. "We had a couple of people in August that came to us because Hope Harbour didn't have room. I think they had to go to Atlanta."

Advocates say genuine care for the abuser, low self-esteem and denial also keep many victims from leaving. Reis said the abuser moves through cycles -- sometimes beating the victim, sometimes acting with kindness. Promises to change usually follow violent outbursts and arrests.

"Every day is not crazy, it's not all violent," Reis said. "His first date was not a punch in the eye and she thought 'Let's go out again.' There's a real love there and an intimacy there."

Though domestic violence cases most often have a male abuser and female victim, the family violence code sees a range of victims -- brothers and sisters, same-sex couples and abusive wives and girlfriends. Regardless of the situation, leaving can carry serious ramifications.

More women are killed when they're leaving the relationship or have left the relationship, Reis said.

"We've had victims here that are getting calls on their cell phones from the jail, and the guy's saying, 'When I get out I'm going to find and kill you,'" she said.

And the violence often reaches those outside the relationship, advocates say. Many employers have to seek court orders or install new security measurements if an employee's safety is threatened by an abusive partner. Sometimes, the abuser's stalking and threatening behaviors can result in termination. Taylor said she didn't recognize the warning signs when she met her abuser in high school.

Later, Taylor said her grandparents demanded she either have an abortion or leave their home after she became pregnant when he date-raped her. So, Taylor married her abuser.

More than a year later, Taylor began looking for a way out. She waited until her husband went to work before leaving with her daughter to go to a shelter. Later, the daycare she worked at called to let her know she was fired because her husband showed up at her workplace with a loaded shotgun, she said.

"When it happened I was very upset, and hurt and angry that they fired me over something I didn't have control over," Taylor said. "But once I was able to get past that and look back, and especially now that I have employees, I understand. It wasn't just the employees. He was putting people's children in danger."

The complications surrounding domestic violence mean family violence charges are often prosecuted even when the victim is unwilling or unable to stand by the case.

Misdemeanor family violence charges are dismissed during some preliminary hearings at the judge's discretion. In some cases, the judge will fine the victim for dropping charges.

But by the time cases reach the District Attorney's Office, the violence has often escalated. In some instances, police will mistake the victim for dead when they discover her unconscious or beaten at the residence, officials said.

Slater said felony charges place the defendant against the state, rather than the victim, because the matter can no longer be considered a domestic dispute.

"We have a duty to protect the community," Slater said. "We may have someone come in that this is the first time that she's had any trouble with him, but there are prior girlfriends or prior wives or prior children that have been the victim of him. We have the duty to protect whoever his next girlfriend or wife might be."

The District Attorney's Office works to protect victims in these cases, sometimes holding defendants who violate restraining orders without bond until a trial can be held.

Still, defense attorneys and family members can pressure a victim to drop the case. It can also be difficult for victims to face the defendant, who has a right to face his accuser during the trial.

"They know, 'I'm going to have to be in the same room with him,'" Hope Harbour Legal Advocate Candice Person said. "I've had to go for protective orders and have had to ask to be escorted to the car with the victim. Just a look can intimidate a victim, and it's not hard for me in court to cut my eyes at you."

Assistant District Attorney George Lipscomb said reminding the defendant and the defense attorney that the victim is not in charge of the case can sometimes alleviate pressure. Reassuring the victim that a conviction would mean her abuser can't reach her also helps.

"You just have to try and build trust," Lipscomb said. "You tell them, 'I can protect you in this courtroom. If you do your job and you testify truthfully, we'll get rid of him. But I can't protect you if you don't testify.'"

Photographs sometimes provide evidence when victims are unwilling. Family members and neighbors can corroborate the victim's initial reports. With or without a victim, the 911 call can serve as a trump card.

"A good 911 tape is dynamite. They're screaming, crying, distraught -- you can hear the guy yelling 'What are you doing?'" Lipscomb said. "If a picture's worth a thousand words, that 911 tape is worth a million. (The jury) can hear everything. They can hear the emotion in the voice, the fear. They get it."

Despite the difficulties facing domestic abuse victims, Slater said it is never too late for victims to come to the police.

"Even if there's no physical evidence, if she comes in and says this is what happened, we'd love to have some corroboration, but we'll take it for what it's worth and see if that's enough to prosecute the case," Slater said.

Reis said victims who are unable to call the police initially during an assault can discretely take pictures of the injuries and document the abuse for when they are able to report. They can create a code with a neighbor so they can safely send an alert when the abuser becomes violent. Hope Harbour can also provide victims with safe housing, a strategy for how to exit the situation safely and find shelter for any pets owned by the victim.

"One thing we can do is make a safety plan with you," Reis said. "Get those items and we can get you a list of some of the things that you may need. Birth certificates, cards, important photos. But in a safe way. Don't start doing it all at once, where he might notice what's going on. These things are never simple and they take planning."

Taylor said the community could also help support efforts to end domestic violence by giving it prominence among other common social causes, such as breast cancer. "More people face domestic violence than cancer. And domestic violence effects women and men -- just like cancer," Taylor said. "I would love to see domestic violence have even half the recognition that breast cancer has."

If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence, you can call Hope Harbour at 706-221-4774 or the Crisis Center of Russell County at (334) 297-4401. The National Domestic Violence hotline can also be reached at 800-799-7233.