Domestic violence victims will not be held in contempt for refusing to testify against their alleged attackers under a state shield law passed by a state Senate committee yesterday and sparked by a 2005 San Mateo County case in which a woman was threatened with jail for not cooperating with prosecution of her ex-boyfriend.
The bill, authored by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Mateo/San Francisco, must pass the full Senate and Assembly to become law but the 3-2 partisan vote of the Senate Public Safety Committee is considered a major step toward that goal.
Likewise, the testimony of Katina Britt, the victim of the San Mateo County case that provoked the bill, was a major reason for its committee passage.
"Having Katina there puts a human face behind what the prosecutors make women go through,” Yee said.
The bill is a mirror image of legislation he proposed in 2006 following the domestic violence trial of David Gilford and subsequent contempt charge for Britt, his former girlfriend.
The bill mimics an existing 1991 law for sexual assault victims, commonly referred to as a shield law.
"Victims of domestic violence deserve the same protection ... and should not be re-victimized by forced testimony, imprisonment or community services,” said Yee, referring to the actions a judge can use in the face of an uncooperative witness.
Yee, an assemblyman during the first proposal, yanked the legislation when it appeared headed for defeat. In the time since, Yee culled the support of domestic violence victim advocacy groups and ensured Britt would tell her story personally to senators.
"I felt the system had given up on me,” Britt testified. "The DA wanted to victimize me once more and the court willingly obliged. I wish I had the protection sought by Senator Yee’s bill.”
What has not changed in the last two years is the stance of the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office.
Pulling a victim’s testimony from a domestic violence trial undercuts the ability to prosecute in some cases and will play a role in deciding whether to even file charges, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
In the case of Britt’s abuser, prosecutors were forced to drop the domestic violence charges after Britt refused to testify against Gilford.
According to the prosecution’s case, Gilford broke into Britt’s home on Nov. 9, 2003. He allegedly jumped from under her bed, accusing her of cheating and assaulted her so badly she was left unconscious and with a bleeding kidney. During the seven-day trial in November 2005, Britt took the stand but refused to cooperate.
Without Britt’s help, prosecutors said their hands were tied. Under a recent Supreme Court decision commonly referred to as Crawford, a victim must testify on their own behalf. A court is limited in what hearsay it allows.
Gilford was sentenced to seven years prison on charges of assault and residential burglary.
Judge Robert Foiles threatened to jail Britt for contempt, sparking a tangential legal battle that ended after she secured an emergency stay of the order and a state appeals court declined to review the matter. Instead, it dissolved the case, calling it moot once Gilford was convicted.
Yee’s bill now heads to the full Senate and may be heard as early as next week.
Supporters, according to Yee’s office, include the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, California Protective Parents Association, California Public Defenders Association, Crime Victims United, Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Yee doesn’t foresee the state District Attorney’s Association or local prosecutors budging from their position.
"Prosecutors want as many weapons in their arsenal as possible, and I don’t think they truly care about the consequences of their actions on individuals,” Yee said.
Instead, the situation is reminiscent of other situations in which the ends were thought to justify the means, he said.
"What we’re dealing with to some extend reminds me of what happened with those Army personnel in Guatanamo Bay who felt they needed to extract confessions from detainees. They thought it was for the greater good to get information whether or not what they were doing is horrible,” he said.
Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.