NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Witnesses are designed to strengthen a case, whether it’s for the defense or prosecution. But not all witnesses want to testify. Advocates argue that’s especially true in cases of domestic or sexual violence.
“Simply put, you re-traumatize a victim by incarcerating them to make them testify,” said Sen. JP Morrell.
Morrell sponsored a bill that prohibits attorneys from requesting a warrant that would incarcerate victims of sexual or domestic violence who refuse to testify. The New Orleans City Council earlier this year passed a resolution supporting the bill, with Councilwoman Helena Moreno offering testimony in Baton Rouge today (April 16).
“The best way to entice a victim to testify is to offer services that will make he or she feel supported and protected,” Moreno said.
The court watchdog group Court Watch NOLA has numbers dating back to 2016 that show 13 material witness warrants were issued in Orleans Parish that year, resulting in the arrests of seven of those witnesses. In 2017, those numbers went down, with seven warrants issued and three arrested.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has said that issuing these warrants is simply a tool available to his office, and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association appeared to agree.
“It takes place in probably less than one percent of the cases where a judge is even asked to issue a warrant for person’s arrest,” Cannizzaro said in February.
“This law is necessary for us to use on rare, rare occasions - it’s seldom used,” said Louisiana District Attorney’s Association President Charles Ballay.
East Baton Rouge Sen. Bodi White, however, questioned whether the practice of jailing victims was a widespread issue throughout the state.
“I understand you have a problem in your parish, I understand that, but I don’t have a problem in my parish, neither four of them,” said White.
“Ultimately, what we’re telling domestic assault and sexual assault victims, ‘Trust us, we know what’s best for you, go to jail until we get your case,” said Morrell.
After about an hour’s worth of questioning and testimony, the bill passed 5-2 and now goes to the Senate floor for more debate.
Councilwoman Moreno sent out a statement saying she is proud to have supported the bill and will continue to push until it is law.