Blogs from April, 2015

Contrary to the wishes of the alleged victim, LA Kings defenseman Slava Voynov is being prosecuted for a domestic violence charge. His wife, Marta Varlamova, objected to her husband’s arrest, but arrest decisions are made by the police, not by victims. Prosecutors charged Voynov despite Varlamova’s ongoing desire for marital privacy. Now they want to force her to testify against her husband.

Domestic abuse charges

According to police reports, Voynov argued with his wife during a Halloween party after telling her that he wanted a divorce. At the time, Varlamova allegedly told the police that Voynov struck her in the jaw, choked her, and kicked her. The police arrested Voynov at the hospital where his wife sought treatment for her injuries.

Through her attorney, Varlamova later stated that the injuries were inflicted accidentally. Her attorney blames the police officer who interviewed her for misunderstanding her statement. Varlamova’s native language is Russian, a language the officer does not speak. Varlamova’s attorney says Varlamova does not understand English.

Not all domestic violence accusations are true

Recantations sometimes motivate a prosecutor to drop domestic violence charges. It is not unusual for the alleged victims of domestic violence to recant their accusations. Some actual victims fear retaliation if they testify against their partners. Some do not want to jeopardize their relationships. Some victims embellished their claims of violence and want to set the record straight. Some alleged victims lied to the police and do not want to risk a perjury prosecution by repeating those lies under oath. On the other hand, some people who make false accusations worry that they will be arrested for making a false report to a police officer if they change their story and tell the truth.

Even when an accuser does not recant, evidence of innocence may persuade a prosecutor to dismiss domestic violence charges. Sometimes prosecutors drop charges because defense attorneys find other evidence that casts doubt upon the accusation. In other cases, prosecutors may drop charges if they suspect that the accusation was motivated by the desire to bring a lucrative civil suit against a professional athlete.

Uncooperative witnesses in domestic violence cases

Only in the movies does it matter whether a victim wants to “press charges.” In California, charges are pressed by the State, not by the victim. The decision to file a criminal accusation is made by a prosecutor who represents the public. The prosecutor may or may not respect the alleged victim’s request to drop the charges, but many prosecutors think it is in the public’s interest to punish domestic violence even if the alleged victim disagrees with that decision. Still, the prosecutor’s decision to file charges or to continue a prosecution may depend upon the victim’s cooperation.

Even if the accuser’s story does not change, an uncooperative accuser can make it difficult for the prosecution to win a conviction. In some cases, charges might be dropped when the accuser moves away or fails to respond to a subpoena. Those situations force prosecutors to decide whether to devote scarce resources to chasing an alleged victim of domestic violence who does not want to cooperate with the prosecution.

Moving forward in Voynov’s case

Prosecutors say they may issue a subpoena to force Marta Varlamova to testify against her husband. If she denies the abuse, the prosecutors will presumably introduce other evidence, including her original statements to the police, in an attempt to prove that Voynov intentionally injured her. That puts prosecutors in the difficult position of arguing “The witness we called lied to you under oath, but we want you to believe that our lying witness was telling the truth when she talked to the police.”

Whether prosecutors will go that far remains to be seen. Voynov is a high profile defendant and prosecutors often push high profile cases because they want to “send a message” against domestic violence. Some victims’ advocates, however, think that prosecutors are sending the wrong message. Advocates for domestic violence victims often argue that forcing recanting or uncooperative accusers to testify makes it less likely that other victims of domestic violence will ask the police for assistance when they are abused.

Should prosecutors traumatize an alleged victim who wants to put the incident behind her instead of reopening old wounds? That’s the decision that prosecutors will eventually need to make in Voynov’s case.