Louisiana Rape Survivors Could Face Jail if They Don’t Testify

Today in rape culture: a Louisiana district attorney who thinks that traumatized rape victims should be punished for refusing to testify.

Leon Cannizzaro, who has served as the district attorney for Orleans Parish since 2008, stands accused of compelling material witnesses to crimes, including rape, to testify — or face jail time. When Cannizzaro responded to the accusations, it was only to double down.

Court Watch NOLA, which promotes transparency in the judicial process, organizes court observers to routinely watch how cases are handled. One emerging trend they’ve observed is the practice of issuing material witness warrants, which require people to testify, in cases of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

It can be easier to prosecute such cases when the survivor takes the stand, adding valuable context and evidence, but doing so can also threaten the well-being of survivors who are dealing with the psychological aftermath of rape.

In addition to running the risk of being jailed — despite having committed no crime — there’s no guarantee of legal counsel for people arrested on material witness warrants. The county simply isn’t required to appoint an attorney for those who cannot access legal assistance by other means.

While issuing warrants for uncooperative witnesses isn’t unheard of in many regions of the country, many district attorneys and experts argue that sexual assault and intimate partner violence should be handled differently. These are intimate, traumatizing crimes, and when survivors opt against testimony, it’s usually because they’re afraid of what might happen in court.

Some may fear “revictimization,” in which they’re forced to relive a painful and deeply upsetting experience. Others are worried about encountering side effects of rape culture like victim blaming, judgmental attitudes or aggressive cross-examination from the defense. And others just want the situation to be over, even if it doesn’t end with jail time for their assailant. For intimate partner violence survivors, retaliation may also be a concern.

One rape survivor was jailed for eight days in 2016, according to Court Watch.

Cannizzaro’s response? “If I have to put a victim of a crime in jail, for eight days, in order to…keep the rapist off of the street, for a period of years and to prevent him from raping or harming someone else, I’m going to do that,” he explained.

This is, to say the least, a rather limited view, and a reminder that rape is treated as a crime against the state, with the victim’s body considered evidence. The experience of rape can be intensely dehumanizing on its own, but interacting with the justice system can be even more traumatic — whether someone is dismissed by law enforcement, humiliated by defense attorneys or, apparently, jailed for being unwilling to serve as a witness.

Jailing victims seems like a strange approach to pursuing justice. At least one district attorney, Kimberly Ogg of Houston, has a specific department policy of refusing to obtain material witness warrants for victims of violent crime like rape. Ogg instituted that policy after her predecessor in the office compelled someone to testify, and the victim had a breakdown in court when faced with her accused assailant.

The advocacy group only identified one case where a rape survivor was jailed because she refused to cooperate with authorities, but they argue that even one case is too much.

Barring the practice isn’t just humane, but it could also make rape survivors more willing to come forward, knowing that the district attorney’s office will support them if they’re ultimately uncomfortable with a call to testify in the case. That, in turn, could lead to more rape prosecutions — and a much safer city.