Material Witness

This story has been bouncing around the feminist blogs for a little while now, but I didn’t realize it was in Washington State. It’s pretty grim. I’m not quoting the most explicit parts of the story, but The Longview Daily News has more details. What’s pertinent is:

In October 2012, a woman was held against her will, taped naked to a chair and sexually assaulted. This week, Cowlitz County prosecutors had the same woman arrested to help prove the case against her alleged captors.

The 43-year-old woman — the victim and prime witness in the case — has not been charged with any crime. She just wasn’t showing up for pre-trial meetings with prosecutors, despite promising to do so several times.

So earlier this month they obtained a judge’s order for a material witness warrant.

It’s a little-used procedure under state law that allows police to arrest a witness of a crime to ensure they show up for court. Chief Criminal Deputy James Smith said such warrants are rare and requested only “as a last resort.”

In this case, it had the added irony of using a warrant to hold the woman against her will so she can help convict someone else of holding her against her will.

Prosecutors said they can’t comment directly on an on-going case. Generally, though, Smith said the severity of the charges is always a factor in taking such a serious step.

Like the people I linked to above, I’m horrified that this happened.* The counties should certainly take up prosecutions of this sort, but detaining a rape victim — one who was for the most part cooperating, but had missed a court date — can’t possibly be the best way to go about it.

It certainly feels like an abuse of the material witness statute. I hope the legislature will take up both better ways to help witnesses who might be transient get to court and to reign in this type of use of the statute. And I hope prosecutors who might be in a position to do this will reconsider.

I mean, we certainly want to prosecute rapists to the extent possible. But surely not by locking up victims, and potentially re-victimizing them. Maybe some of the lawyers in the comments section can think of positive changes to the law.

If you want to contact the Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney’s office and ask them to do better next time, you can do so here.

* FWIW, I wish it didn’t frame it as going after Marcotte, who I agree is wrong here. I think making it about her takes the focus away from the law and the people with power detaining the victim.


  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Just to be clear, in case it isn’t, it wasn’t the authorities who taped her naked to a chair; her ex-boyfriend (aka “the rapist”) did that. The authorities merely threw her in jail because she refused to cooperate with them in prosecuting her ex-boyfriend.

    I’ve always been a bit mystified by why the female subset of the human species (aka “you stupid humans”) so frequently protect members of the male subset who abuse them. Is it love? Fear? A (usually misguided) belief that it won’t happen again? Any prosecutor working in a domestic violence section will tell you s/he can’t count the number of times that abuse victims refused to cooperate with authorities, resumed cohabiting with their abusers, and got the crap beat of them again.

    I don’t know the answer to this. Well, yes I do. The answer is to get rid of you stupid humans and replace you with a more intelligent species, say for example, rabbits. In the meantime, your laws are your problem. After all, you stupid humans enacted them; we rabbits didn’t do that to you.

  2. 2

    Ekim spews:

    Cowlitz County, lots hard core RETARDS.

    Most of the residents don’t need because their family tree (singular) doesn’t branch.

  3. 4

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    In the past, we usually associated “material witnesses” with gangster prosecutions. Who got the bright idea of holding rape victims as material witnesses? But I don’t doubt this particular lady ran the authorities in circles, as they must have gotten pretty frustrated with her to do this.

  4. 5

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    So what do you do in these cases? An uncooperative witness who repeatedly breaks court appearances wastes a lot of public resources.

    One option is to drop the charges against the perp. Without a witness, you pretty much have to, and that’s usually what a witness behaving like this wants. So the perp walks, and a week or month goes by, then she’s calling the police again for the same damn reason.

    Let the feminists gnash their teeth and wail all they want to. At some point, you have to do something. In the old days, the cops would take the perp for a ride to a secluded location and have an attitude training session with him. But we don’t really want cops practicing vigilante justice, do we? Rule of law, and all that.

    Look, victims who behave this way are undermining the rule of law. Prosecuting serial abusers involves more than just protecting a victim who doesn’t want to be protected. Society has broader interests that sometimes may justifiably take priority over what the victim wants.

    Under our legal system, a crime isn’t just an offense against the victim, it’s an offense against society, and it isn’t just the victim’s business, it’s society’s business because societal interests are at stake. That’s why public prosecutors, not private victims, decide whether to prosecute perpetrators.

    Material witness laws exist to give judges and prosecutors a tool to deal with uncooperative victims whose behavior undermines the rule of law. I wouldn’t change those laws. I expect judges and prosecutors to apply them judiciously, not copiously; and when they’re used, if I were a journalist or blogger, I would carefully weigh the facts of the specific case before I’d go screaming “victim abuse! victim abuse!” Just because someone is a crime victim doesn’t mean we should let them abuse the criminal justice system.

    A couple of the commentators Carl linked to argue that rape victims should never be taken into custody under material witness laws for not cooperating with authorities. I’m not sure how I would go with that. Technically, it’s easy to rewrite a material witness law to exclude all rape victims from its application. But do you really want to do that? This would tell rapists they’ll walk if they threaten and intimidate the victim enough. There are likely other unintended consequences. What the policy should be is worth discussing, but you don’t really want to knee-jerk this. It deserves careful thought, and I don’t know what the ultimate answer is.