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The Recanting Victim and Domestic Violence

The biggest difference between domestic violence and other forms of assault is that domestic violence occurs between an aggressor and victim within the same family or household. These relationships between the parties can often complicate prosecution of the crimes, since victims may be reluctant to see someone so close to them get punished. When that happens, victims may stop cooperating with police and prosecutors and recant their previous statements about the attacks.

Recanting Defined

A victim's statements to the police about domestic violence will be used both to charge the attacker with crimes and as evidence for the prosecution. If the victim later changes his or her story or withdraws the statement all together, it's known as recanting. This can happen at any time during the case, including at trial, but is often done early on in an attempt to get the charges dropped against the attacker.

Why Victims Recant

There's no universal reason why victims of domestic violence later recant statements against their attackers, but the close relationship between them usually plays a big role in changing the victim's story. In some situations, it's the fear of more violence in the future if the attacker is acquitted or the charges are dropped, or even after the attacker spent time behind bars. This fear is especially pronounced when local police and government resources exist to make sure victims are protected when their attackers are released.

Victims may also face external pressure to recant when their attacker plays a significant role in their life or in the life of someone close to them. If, for example, a woman's abusive husband was the sole source of financial support for her and their children, she may be reluctant to risk his going to jail or prison if it means the family suffers. For these recanting victims, they may consider enduring the abuse as less harmful than being homeless or otherwise abandoned.

Surprisingly, some victims recant out of a sense of guilt. This is usually prompted by their attacker making themselves out to be a victim of the criminal justice system. In a study of jailhouse conversations between domestic violence perpetrators and their victims, researchers saw a pattern of the attackers minimizing the situation, then appealing for sympathy and, ultimately, asking the victim to recant.

Moving Forward Without the Victim's Cooperation

Just because a victim no longer wishes to cooperate doesn't mean the case gets dropped. Unlike a private lawsuit between two parties, criminal cases like domestic violence are prosecuted by a district attorney's office. Therefore, the case against the defendant will continue even if the victim recants previous statements, assuming the prosecutor has enough other evidence available to support the charges. Other evidence of the crime might include:

  • Police reports
  • Photographs of injuries or property damage
  • Audio or video recordings, including 911 calls
  • Statements or threats made on social media
  • Medical records
  • Eyewitness accounts

Effects of Recanting

In many cases, enough independent evidence will exist to proceed with the prosecution of the defendant, even without the victim's cooperation. Prosecutors often expect domestic violence victims will recant their statements, with some even adopting strategies that are more like homicide cases, where they assume there will be no victim to testify.

Unfortunately, it's not always possible to proceed with domestic violence cases when the victims change their stories. In these situations, a crime goes unpunished and a victim usually remains at risk of future domestic violence.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, don't let yourself get pressured into recanting your statements. If you need help, contact local support groups or the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Agencies like these are committed to keeping domestic violence victims safe.

Get a Free Initial Evaluation of Your Domestic Abuse Case

Domestic abuse leaves physical, emotional, and mental scars on its victims and is rightly treated as a serious crime. As with any crime, reliable victim testimony is absolutely critical for prosecutors. If you have any questions about a domestic abuse case, have a family law attorney conduct an initial evaluation of your legal situation for free.

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