Domestic violence witness tampering is complex subject, says expert

 by Cynthia Price

Legal News
Regrettably, Women’s History Month (March) would be incomplete without telling the stories of domestic violence victims.
If Sarah Buel has anything to say about it, that particular chapter will be relegated strictly to the history books.
Buel, who received her Juris Doctor from Harvard, is a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and co-director of the university’s Domestic Violence Clinic.
She is also a survivor of domestic violence herself.
In a three-hour presentation sponsored by the Domestic Violence Committee of the State Bar of Michigan, held at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Ann Arbor, and telecast at Cooley’s Auburn Hills, Lansing, and Grand Rapids campuses, Buel focused on the complexities of witness tampering and how it is regarded by the law.
She also spoke about “compassionate representation,” that is, how to treat victims of domestic violence — often called Intimate Partner Violence or IPV — when they are clients, and about getting to know them well enough to pick up on ways in which their victimizers may continue to manipulate them.
Critical to this manipulation are the myriad ways perpetrators of IPV attempt to dissuade their victims from testifying.
Buel said she feels witness tampering is overwhelmingly prevalent in IPV cases, and probably the least-sentenced crime she sees. She has researched the numbers for an upcoming law review article, and says, “It’s amazing how many cases there are where witness tampering is dropped after it is originally charged.”
The reason for this in part is that witness tampering in domestic violence cases can be very subtle. As Buel points out, witness tampering is defined as “conduct intending to silence a witness.” In IPV prosecution, this may include pleas for forgiveness, expensive or sentimental gifts, and endearments, as well as verbal threats and new physical assaults and verbal threats.  Threatening to “go for custody” is an effective way to change the behavior of the witness-victim who values her children.
Buel told a story about when she was a new prosecutor. In front of the judge and everyone in court, the accused flashed a jewelry box containing a wedding ring at his victim. According to Buel the witness told her she was not going to be able to go forward – they had been living together for six years and the ring was an indication he was finally asking her to marry him. “None of us seemed to realize this was witness tampering at the time,” Buel says.
To avoid such surprises, Buel says it is critical to really listen as the victim discusses her
situation. To do a good job
representing an IPV victim, Buel has a list of what she calls “necessary lenses:” sensitivity to issues having to do with age, particularly since victims seem to be younger and younger, as well as with race and culture; exploration of how the victim’s faith controls her response; screening for depression and recognizing substance abuse problems; finding out about limitations posed by disabilities; determining whether victims may have sexual orientation or other “secrets” that they fear disclosing publicly.
She advises complete honesty with the victim and potential witness, including warning them against all the ways their intimate partner may try to get them to end the prosecution.
Buel, who was passionate about her subject to the degree that she had difficulty ending the lecture, also had a list of actions domestic violence centers can take. In the Grand Rapids session, some of the attendees were associated with such centers, so this was information well-received.
Buel was instrumental in creation of a documentary film on the subject, Defending Our Lives, which follows four imprisoned women who took the lives of their batterers. She feels attorneys would benefit greatly from viewing it. More information is at