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Credibility in court as an abuse victim

Credibility in court as an abuse victim

To be brutally honest, abuse victims are disadvantaged in legal proceedings because everyday people will have great difficulty understanding the victim’s counterintuitive behavior.  Many judges will wrongly assume that abuse victims will immediately flee when they are in danger.  Most people are deeply disturbed and confused when abuse victims go back to their abuser.  Fans of the pop star Rihanna were quite unhappy and perplexed when she went back to the man who brutally beat her.

Expectations of abuse victims

Unfortunately, society teaches us many ideas that are not in line with the real world.  Some of the things that everyday people won’t get about abuse are:

  1. Why the victim doesn’t leave right away.
  2. Why some victims want to protect their abuser.
  3. Why some exes still love their abuser, have sex with them after being abused, have children while being abused, etc. etc.
  4. Why some victims try really hard to get their abuser to change, to go back to their old (false) self, etc.
  5. Why victims seek some form of validation from their abuser, e.g. the abuser admitting that what they did was wrong, wanting the abuser to change, etc.
  6. How hurtful emotional abuse is, and that emotional abuse is usually worse than physical/sexual abuse.
  7. Why victims allow themselves to be manipulated.
  8. Men being sexually or physically abused by a woman.  Society stereotypes abuse and rape as activities that men do to women, making it more difficult for male victims to be credible victims.  (*The ‘men’s rights’ movement is still a cesspool of toxicity.)

Fighting society’s misguided views on abuse will likely be an uphill battle and a poor legal strategy.  If a judge thinks that the victim’s story is implausible, the judge may erroneously think that the story was fabricated and that the abuse victim made it up to harass the abuser.

It may be a better idea to think about the story that you do want to tell.  For example, a plausible story would be that you were scared.

  • Why didn’t you leave? → I was scared about retaliation.
  • Why did you protect your abuser? → I was scared about what would happen if I didn’t.
  • Why does your email/text say that you love your abuser? → I was scared and hoped that appeasing them would make things better.
  • Why did you act like a doormat in trying to get them to love you? → I was scared and hoped that it would end the abuse.
  • Why did you let him make you quit your job, let him know where you were at all time, read your emails, etc.? → I was scared.
  • Why didn’t you act like a caring and protective mother? → I was scared for my safety and my children’s safety if I were to defy my abuser.

Being scared can explain everything.  It leads to a plausible story.  If the truth has multiple facets, just focus on the facet that typical people will understand and avoid the facets that will hurt you in court.  Do not start talking about how there is good inside your abuser, that your abuser is troubled and needs your help, that their rough childhood excuses their illegal behavior, that you don’t want to ruin their life by putting them in jail, that you have positive feelings for them, etc. etc.  Stick to the narratives that everyday people would understand and accept as plausible:

  • You were scared for yourself and/or your children.
  • It was hard to leave because of money (but mostly because of fear).
  • You were blinded by love so you ignored the red flags.
  • You didn’t know what to do, didn’t know if the police would have your back, don’t know how the legal system works, etc.
  • Your abuser waged a campaign of manipulation (and psychological warfare) to control you, such as implied threats to your physical safety.

Do not lie

Do not lie to protect your abuser!!!  This will create credibility problems for you later on and can be used against you.

When protecting yourself, you can put a little spin on your story.  But do not lie or fabricate facts.  Remember that the facts should be on your side because you are the real victim.  Lying is unnecessary and risks destroying the strongest part of your case.

Defending your abuser is a bad idea

Defending your abuser’s actions will confuse everyday people and make your story less credible.  Most people will be confused and/or disturbed if you excuse the abuser’s actions because of their traumatic upbringing, you do not want to see your abuser punished too harshly, you refer to your abuser as your best friend despite brutality (e.g. pull a Rihanna), etc.

Protecting your reputation may be a bad idea

If you are legitimately a victim, then play the victim.  You can hurt your credibility if you try to pretend that you are a “strong” person who will rescue your abuser from their emotional torment.  You can hurt your credibility if you try to spin the situation as something that makes you look good, such as taking pride in the way that your abuser courted you at the beginning of the relationship (example).

Remember that the court proceedings will involve a number of strangers that you will likely never run into again.  Once your legal proceedings are done, these people do not matter so don’t worry about your reputation.  If you want any embarrassing court records to be sealed (made private), ask your lawyer about how to do it.

Delivery

Your delivery in court will affect whether the judge believes you or not.  If your story is that you were scared, then it would make sense for you to be nervous and anxious in court (especially when your abuser is in the same room).  If you may come off weird in court then you can simply apologize for your nerves, letting others attribute any weirdness to your nerves and being traumatized.  It is ok to be nervous and scared.

Practice your testimony

How you deliver your testimony and handle cross-examination will influence how credible you appear.  A good lawyer will help coach your delivery:

  • Confidence.  When people talk about the sky being blue, there is no doubt or nervousness in their delivery.  If you talk with conviction in what you’re saying is true (a casual delivery is fine), then you will be more believable.  When you are questioned by your own lawyer, you can practice answering those particular questions beforehand with confidence.  When the questions get into traumatic territory, then you can let your emotions show and you can take your time.  You can minimize rehearsal of traumatic questions so that you will be more emotional when you testify.
  • Practice answering questions that the other lawyer will likely ask.  Do not make up lies on the spot.  Have an idea as to what story you will tell when they attack your credibility and try to poke holes in your story.
  • Some lawyers will ask leading questions, so you might want to practice translating their question into a non-leading question.  e.g. “Your question seems like it might be a leading question.  To clarify, what you’re really asking is _____?”  If the lawyer’s question implies a narrative, e.g. that you secretly “wanted” to be raped by dressing slutty, then ask a clarifying question: “To clarify, are you asking me if I secretly wanted to be raped by dressing slutty?”  (Optionally, you can use your body language to suggest that the opposing lawyer is being offensive.)  The judge may order you to answer the question as asked.  But you will always be allowed to clarify what the opposing lawyer is trying to ask you.

Do not harass your abuser in court

If you are angry at your abuser, do not bring that anger into court.  Just focus on winning your case and acting like a credible witness.  Do not show up to court and engage in harassment, pettiness, name calling, insults, etc.  If the court hearing is for a restraining order, judges do not want to see the system being abused by those who use it to wrongly harass others.  If you show up and start name calling your abuser, then the judge may wrongly think that you are abusing the system.

In a custody battle, you do not want to be petty towards your ex because you don’t want the judge to wrongly assume that you are yet another bitter ex.  They deal with bickering exes on a daily basis so that may start tuning out when both sides engage in pettiness.  They may wrongly assume that your claims were exaggerated in order to get back at your ex.

You can prepare your answers beforehand

If you testify, you can prepare notes beforehand and have them in front of you when you testify.  You can refer to them to refresh your memory.  You may not want to read off answers word for word as it may come off as unnatural, prepared and unconvincing.

If you are a human being, you will remember things incorrectly.  That’s ok.  Just stick to one version of events and do not contradict yourself.  If you cannot remember something, don’t lie and make something up- it can only hurt you later on if the other side picks apart inconsistencies and contradictions in your story.  If you don’t remember, just say so.  If you have objective records of what happened (phone logs, credit card bills, location data from GPS, location tagging in social media photos, etc.), then you can review that information to make sure that your story is as accurate as possible.

To anticipate what questions will be asked, ask your lawyer if you have one.  Common narratives used in defenses against abuse allegations include:

  1. We had fights.  But I never abused him/her.
  2. My estranged child is a troubled kid with behavior issues (e.g. drugs), is/was an angsty teenager, etc.
  3. My ex became bitter and is now making stuff up to harass me.  (No illegal events took place.)
  4. My ex is mentally unstable and has mental health issues or a substance abuse issue (drinking, hard drugs, etc.).
  5. The alleged victim claims abuse but their words and actions are inconsistent with abuse.  They still love me, have sex with me, had children with me, give me gifts/money, spend time with me, send friendly emails/texts to me, etc. etc.
  6. The alleged victim wasn’t scared of me because they willingly talked to me after the alleged events occurred.
  7. If the dispute is over custody of children, the abuser can argue that they only abuse their ex but not the children.  Their ex incites disputes but the children do not.
  8. If the abuser is crazy, they may claim that they are the victim rather than the abuser.

Based on narratives that would make sense for the other party, you can make educated guesses as to what questions you will be asked.

Assume that the judge or your abuser will read your notes, so don’t put crazy stuff in there such as name calling.  The other party in a lawsuit can usually request a copy of your notes during the discovery process.

Generate evidence to match your story

If your story is plausible and you have evidence to back it up, then you will have a strong case.  Evidence can include:

  1. Physical evidence of abuse, such as medical records documenting your injuries.  If the doctor is of the opinion that your injuries are consistent with abuse, then ask them to write it down in your medical records and/or in a letter to you.
  2. Audio recordings.  You can record phone conversations using free Android apps.  In some states, it is illegal to secretly record phone conversations unless you have an expectation that you will collect evidence of illegal activity (e.g. threats of violence, child abuse, etc.).  It may be illegal to post those conversations on Facebook if you are in those states as it could be considered to be an invasion of privacy.
    • If you are in danger, dial 911.  Your call will be recorded and you can get access to it later.
    • If you are scared, you can go into a washroom while they are raging.  Because the abuser can’t see your phone through the door, you can record their rage on your smartphone (test the audio quality beforehand though).
  3. Texts, emails, Facebook Messenger, and other written communications.  If you do not incite the other party over text and they berate you in their messages, then the written communication will support your story.  In written exchanges, avoid name calling and other not-so-nice statements so that it doesn’t look like you are inciting your abuser into a fight.
  4. Confessions.  If you have an audio recording of the abuser admitting to wrongdoing, then it’s pretty good evidence.  Even if you have no evidence of the abuse, it may be possible to get a confession after the fact because some abusers are crazy (Reddit example).  Narcissists may brag about their misdeeds if they believe that their ability to get away with their misdeeds makes them look good.
  5. They talk to the police.  They will likely lie to the police to try to manipulate their way out.  However, this will likely incriminate your abuser if you have objective evidence that contradicts what they’re saying.  Getting the police to interview or question your abuser is usually to your advantage.
  6. Journal your abuse.  You can keep a paper or electronic log of events that have occurred.  This isn’t the best evidence of abuse, but it does provide evidence that you were scared.  More importantly, a journal can be helpful because your abuser will likely lie about the past.  They may claim that things were going well between you and them at particular points in time.  But if you’ve been keeping a journal of the abuse, then you have evidence that things weren’t going well between you and them.  If you started taking martial arts classes like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, then you have some evidence supporting your fear.
    • Do not engage in name calling in your journal.  Assume that the judge and your abuser can read the entire journal.

Do not delete texts or social media messages to make your story look better.  The digital paper trail can often be recovered and be used as grounds to overturn your entire case.

Recap

  1. Think of a narrative that everyday people would find plausible.
  2. Generate evidence to match that narrative.

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