Scorned Law: Rethinking Evidentiary Rules in Cases of Gender-Based Violence
Today, I would like to touch upon what I believe to be a disturbing void within Critical Legal Theory. Although Crit-scholars have unmasked many examples of apparently neutral laws with discriminatory effects, they have overlooked to some extent the weight of apparently neutral evidentiary rules upon certain minority and identitarian groups. The article I’m currently working on intends to explore this void by examining how evidence rules are not neutral in practice, but rather inexorably respond to our patriarchal practices.
The ultimate end of our evidentiary system is to fairly ascertain the truth and secure a just determination in every proceeding. However, for centuries, women have been doubly victimized and subjugated to patriarchal powers because of evidentiary rules. Their value as human beings have been lessened in rape and sexual harassment cases by a long history of corroboration requirements and public disclosure of their sexual past. Most jurisdictions have been able to recognize that it was necessary to reform these rules in order to amend those wrongs. Nonetheless, our system, through its evidentiary rules, continues to re-victimize women. Attorneys unscrupulously make use of certain rules of evidence to access a patriarchal narrative that blames women for the violence they are victims of or that portrays them as a dishonest party seeking revenge. The resulting proceedings preclude effective judicial redress. It is time we start looking into these instances and think of amending our rules of evidence to correct the wrongs we continue to inflict upon women, especially in the context of gender-based violence.
Violence against women is an alarming problem in our society. Although reliable figures are difficult to compile, it is estimated that 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault and that 85% of domestic violence victims are women. Most of these crimes, however, are not prosecuted, mainly because they go unreported. Organizations working in this field estimate that only 25% of all physical assaults, 20% of all rapes and 50% of all stalking crimes are reported. Moreover, meta-analysis of police and judicial statistics reveals that only one out of six domestic violence cases reported to the police in the United States results in a conviction. Furthermore, only a third of the people arrested for domestic violence ends up convicted. These numbers illustrate a twofold problem. First, a large percentage of the afflicted population of women is not seeking judicial redress. On the other hand, those who do go through the legal process are not receiving the justice they deserve and seek.
There are multiple reasons that would account for the low reporting rates in these types of crimes. It has been widely studied how victims do not feel comfortable going to the authorities because police officers do not validate their accusations and instead receive victims with the same violence the victims have been trying to escape. In addition, in many instances, women are trying to avoid the negative repercussions that prosecuting these crimes introduce to their lives, such as adverse child custody determinations or becoming the object of criminal investigations themselves. Likewise, there are several reasons that explain the low percentage of convictions. The more salient one is the implicit biases of triers of facts. It has been documented how judges and jurors take women to be less credible than their male partners, a bias that grows even deeper when factors such as race, socio-economic and immigration status are thrown into the mix.
This credibility bias is extremely powerful, especially when rules of evidence allow defense attorneys to use it in their favor. Fully aware of this fact, defense attorneys have reclaimed the myth of the scorned woman to argue that female victims are misusing the judicial system “to get back at” their partners or ex-lovers and that defendants should not be convicted because it is all a lie. The strategy takes advantage of the rules of evidence that allow attorneys to impeach the credibility of a witness with any specific act of untruthfulness by bringing into evidence inconsequential acts of mendacity. By doing so, defense attorneys access the sexist narrative of the scorned woman that resonates with the implicit credibility bias of adjudicators and secure a verdict of not guilty. This strategy hinders convictions and deters victims from coming forward. Domestic violence victims are well aware of this practice and choose not to report the crimes out of the fear of being demonized as liars and re-victimized during the trial.
Consider the following example. A woman decides to press charges against her husband who has been physically abusing her for three years. During the trial, the defense attorney impeaches the 25–year-old “housewife” with a loan application she filed when she was 20. The victim admits during cross that she in fact lied on the application. Since all of the acts of violence occurred in the privacy of their home, there are no other witnesses to corroborate her version except for the victim’s mother. During the trial, the defense attorney highlights how successful his client is and how the marriage was experiencing difficulties. In the closing, the defense attorney states that we know how the victim is capable of lying to get whatever she wants. He further argues that she did not want her husband to leave the relationship and was capable of lying in order to force her husband to stay with her and secure her financial stability. The basic premise of the defense’s theory is that it was all an attempt from the victim to get back at the abuser for wanting to end their relationship. Finally, the attorney discredits the victim’s mother by affirming that a mother would do anything for a daughter. The verdict comes out and the defendant is found not guilty.
This case is more common than we might think. Women not only face the disbelief of those closest to them who cannot understand why they would leave their “alleged” abusive partner, but also bear the cross of being depicted as liars in court. Conviction rates seem to suggest that such a strategy is quite effective and that fact triers’ biases are indeed precluding the fair administration of justice in gender-based violence cases.
A good strategy to prevent this from continuing to happen is to reform our evidentiary rules. We must shield gender-based violence victims from vicious attacks based in patriarchal notions about women’s character that only skew the truth and prevent justice from being served. Such a proposal should also make evident that this powerful narrative of women not being credible is so pervasive that none of us is exempt from acting upon its premises. Specifically, I advocate for the adoption of rules that would prevent attorneys from impeaching victims of gender-based violence (such as a battered women, rape and sexual harassment victims) with previous acts of untruthfulness not related to the charges.
My proposal envisions a hearing presided by a second judge in which defense attorneys will proffer to the court the evidence they possess and intend to use in the trial regarding the untruthful character of the victim. In addition, the defense will be required to present evidence about the victim’s history of misusing the judicial system or any proof it might possess with regard to the victim maliciously filing the suit or pressing charges against the defendant. During this special hearing, the prosecution or the plaintiff would have the opportunity to rebut the allegations from the defense and present evidence that supports the veracity of the charges and the lack of evidence about the victim abusing the judicial system.
This hearing would give the court the opportunity to weigh the relevance of the evidence against its prejudicial effects and the probability of misguiding the triers of facts in their determination of whether the offense actually occurred. If the court determines that the probative value of the evidence outweighs its prejudicial effects, the court will issue an order stating that such evidence should be admissible and will state the scope of the defense’s line of questioning and how it could be used by the defense when arguing its case. This procedure would ensure – especially in criminal cases – that the defendant’s rights are not being violated, while providing the victim a less biased court.
Although a blog post does not provide sufficient space to explore all the details of a possible shield rule, I hope this entry serves to stir up a conversation about the need for such a rule. Hopefully, in the future, our rules of evidence will be amended to protect women from being doubly victimized in gender-based violence cases. Even more importantly, such a reform would help increase the conviction rates in gender-based violence cases and would encourage victims to report incidents of violence.