Cobb ADA Hannah Palmquist said, “We need to send the message that we are going to stand up for victims.” (John Disney/Daily Report)
A conviction and 10-year prison sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in Cobb County last week illustrates a dramatic change in the prosecution of domestic violence crimes, according to lawyers on both sides and victim advocates.
Roosevelt Woods, 44, of Marietta, was charged with assaulting his wife. When police arrived at their home on Christmas Eve 2012, Woods’ wife said Woods had put a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her. But later, she changed her story, saying the incident never happened, according to the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The prosecution proceeded without her cooperation.
“Obviously, when a victim recants in any case, we take it seriously and investigate to see what we think is really going on,” said the prosecutor, Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Hannah Palmquist. In this case, the state had no physical evidence of the attack and no other eyewitnesses besides the couple. However, Palmquist said, the police and prosecution interviewed family members who spoke to the victim immediately after the alleged attack and who saw the defendant with a knife. In addition, the same witnesses testified to a cycle of violence that had gone on for 20 years, and Woods had a string of prior arrests for attacks on his wife. Most of those reports were made by family members or others on her behalf.
The prosecutor, who is 26 and in her second year as a lawyer, said she has heard that in decades past, when an alleged victim of domestic violence recanted, the case typically was dropped.
“It’s a new age. We need to send the message that we are going to stand up for victims, even when they can’t stand up for themselves,” said Palmquist. “The important attitude to have is when one person is victimized, our whole community suffers and we all have an interest in protecting our entire community.”
In this case, the woman’s safety was of particular concern to the Cobb district attorney’s office because of the number of years over which the violence had been documented, Palmquist said. The Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review shows that most women who are killed by their partners have been with the man for a number of years, often for decades. The report also says it’s common for victims to recant and gives many reasons for why they do: loyalty to the spouse, fear for their own safety and that of other family members, economic dependency or belief that they can change the abuser.
“As a prosecutor, the way I feel is even if we’re going to lose the case, we’d rather try the case and lose it than dismiss it, because if we dismiss, a lot of these become murder cases,” Palmquist said.
The trial started April 7. Knowing the wife would testify on the husband’s behalf, the prosecutor called her to testify during the presentation of the state’s case. “We put her up, even though we knew she was going to say it didn’t happen,” said Palmquist, who said she expected the jury to read the woman’s fear in her demeanor. In this case, Palmquist said, the questioning on the prior arrests was important. “She admitted enough of it” to show a pattern, Palmquist said.
On Wednesday morning, just before closing arguments were set to begin, Woods announced he had decided to plead guilty. This came as a surprise to the state, which had no deal to offer. Cobb County Superior Court Judge James Bodiford sentenced Woods to the maximum of 20 years, but ordered him to serve only 10 years in custody with the other 10 years to be served on probation.
“It was very unusual for a defendant to plead guilty right before closing arguments,” Palmquist said. She said that, in her experience, some defendants had pleaded guilty once they saw that the case would go forward without the victim’s testimony. But this was different.
Defense attorney J. Scott Anderson of Marietta agreed. “I have not seen one quite like this one,” Anderson said.
Although the state had no direct evidence or eyewitnesses to the alleged crime, in this case, the circumstantial evidence was strong—the history of violence and the defendant having a knife after the incident, Anderson said. “Given the evidence, I think he probably made a wise decision,” Anderson said of his client, Woods. “I think he may have saved himself several years in prison.”
The case represents a measure of progress made from years of domestic violence advocates working with law enforcement officers and prosecutors, according to Holly Comer Tuchman, vice chairwoman of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence and CEO and executive director of the YWCA of Northwest Georgia, which runs a women’s shelter and a program to assist victims of domestic violence in Cobb, Cherokee and Paulding counties.
“Someone recanting is not unusual. But I’m thankful we had a prosecutor who saw there was enough evidence here to pursue it,” said Tuchman. “I think we’ve come a long way from a time when domestic violence wasn’t really talked about or when if a victim recanted, we just walked away.”