“My usual insights didn’t seem to apply. I didn’t know how to help her.”
Illustration by Dola Sun
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
As a former domestic-violence prosecutor, I could recognize the textbook case: prior abuse, a controlling relationship, an uncooperative complainant. I knew that it could happen to anyone.
But this wasn't anyone—this was family.
It was a busy Thursday morning when, climbing the Queens County Supreme Courthouse steps on my way into the district attorney's office, my cellphone rang.
"Good morning, angel," my mother said in a cheerful voice. "There's something I need to tell you." She went on to explain that one of our relatives, Julia*, was in the hospital. After driving herself to the emergency room the previous night, Julia woke up in the post-op intensive care unit. Doctors told her that she had sustained multiple broken ribs, a missing tooth, and a ruptured spleen.
Julia told them that she had tripped and fallen down a flight of stairs. But she was rarely clumsy.
I promised to be on the next flight home to Miami.
As I hung up the phone, I remembered a photograph I'd seen a few months earlier. Julia's face looked like a botched face-painting lesson—one eye decorated in reds and purples, swirls of blue indicating multiple points of impact. That time, she swore she had cooked a chicken for her boyfriend and had slipped while carrying the tray.
I did not press her on it, but even then, I knew better.
The night of that earlier assault, Julia had been the one to call the police. But soon she decided she didn't want to participate in his prosecution, and the case went nowhere.
When I got to the hospital, nurses zipped by and attending physicians paced the hallways of the intensive care unit. Everyone seemed to be screaming into cellphones. Then I saw Julia through an open door.
Plastic tubes dangled from her nostrils, and the gown revealed bandaging taped to her stomach and electrode stickers glued to her chest. The heart monitor beeped.
Julia looked up and tried to smile, and I tried not to stare at the gap where her bottom tooth belonged. When I sat down on the edge of the bed and asked what really happened, she began to cry.
"It's all my fault," she finally whispered.
She told me that, days earlier, she'd fought with her boyfriend about fidelity. Though she hadn't been unfaithful, he didn't like that she was text messaging with her boss after hours. He told her he felt disrespected by her backtalk.
He then punched her in the face, threw her to the floor, and kicked her repeatedly in the stomach, chest, and back, she told me. As she lay there on the bathroom floor, he promised it would never happen again.
By the time she got herself to the hospital two days later, the internal bleeding had brought her close to death.
When I began my career as a domestic-violence prosecutor, I had a difficult time understanding why my victims would return to their abusers—we had given them distance and safety through the law, and through restraining orders, batterer programs, and jail time. Part of me actually couldn't stand the women who sat across from me in my office and justified their partners' behaviors, or, worse, looked me in the eye and lied.
But after prosecuting these types of cases for years, I came to expect it. And over time I came to understand that these victims' choices are not always matters of strength, will, or resolve—that there were other hurdles in the way.
There are cultural and practical considerations: financial dependence, housing and immigration concerns. There are emotional considerations: isolation, shame. There is fear. There is hope. There is a blind belief that it will not happen again. There is, of course, love.
After years of handling domestic dispute cases, I expected to arrive at the hospital and know what to do for Julia. I assumed I would be the voice of reason.
But my usual insights didn't seem to apply. I didn't know how to help her, maybe because I couldn't emotionally disassociate from the situation. I expected Julia—an independent, strong-willed woman with a solid family support system—to stand up for herself where many of the others had not.
As a prosecutor, I looked critically at the facts of every case that touched my desk and, in preparation for trial, envisioned how the proceeding might go. Corroborating evidence—medical records and photos, statements made by the accused, other witnesses' observations—tended to support the victim's testimony, but what evidence would the judge throw out? Would the jury hear only a portion of the facts? And which testimony would they discount?
At trial, in a room filled with strangers, the victim is asked to talk about humiliating and degrading injuries suffered at the hands of a man she loves.
In order to process what had happened to Julia, I began to view her reality differently—not as my relative, but as a case. I had to reconcile what I believed justice should look like, as Julia's family member, with what I knew it would look like, as a prosecutor. It was ultimately my way of having a bit of space from what was happening. A way of coping.
So as I thought about Julia and her potential case, I weighed the good and bad facts:
Good: Her boyfriend called Julia numerous times after she went to the hospital and left many voicemails. "Jules, call me," he said. "I want to come see you, but I don't know who's there with you." His voice had become more panicked with each message. "Julie, please, please call. I'm so sorry."
As a prosecutor, I would argue that these calls evinced not only his attempts at manipulation of and control over Julia, but also his consciousness of guilt.
Good: Before her boyfriend's arrest, I went to collect some of Julia's things and found that her home had been emptied. Her blood had been cleaned away and the house cleared out. All that remained was the lingering smell of bleach.
I assumed that when his apologies went unanswered, he chose to run—further evidence of his guilt.
Bad: In order to succeed on an attempted-murder conviction, the prosecutor would have to convince 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that her boyfriend intended to end Julia's life. This might prove difficult in light of Julia's choice to stay with him after an assault. How could she explain that? I was concerned this would make her an unreliable witness.
Bad: She had also initially lied to hospital personnel about how her injuries were sustained. Though the medical records would show the extent of the injuries, they also show she claimed to have fallen down the stairs. Would a jury be able to move past these inconsistencies when evaluating her testimony?
More Bad: Julia has a history of substance abuse.
How you get the law to help someone is like a puzzle. Julia is family, but when I looked at her in that hospital room and she returned my gaze, she became just another woman with a story.
Deanna Paul is a prosecutor in New York City, where she handles felony sex crimes and violent crimes against children. She is also an adjunct professor at the Fordham University School of Law. Julia's boyfriend ultimately pleaded guilty to felony battery and was sentenced to probation. He has since violated probation twice. There is an outstanding open probation warrant for his arrest.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.
Editor's note: Some details in this story have been changed since publication to further obscure the identity of the victim.
Illustration by Dola Sun