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Prosecution Strategies in Domestic Violence Felonies: Anticipating and Meeting Defense Claims, Final Report

NCJ Number
Date Published
149 pages
Publication Series
This study identified the trial strategies of the prosecution and defense in domestic violence cases by examining the trial transcripts of 40 felony domestic-violence cases (21 murder cases and 19 non-murder cases) in Iowa between 1989 and 1995.
In addition to identifying general prosecution and defense strategies, the study also examined the extent to which prosecutors were able to present evidence of the context of the abusive relationship and history of prior violent acts in helping the fact-finders understand the current charge. Trial transcripts were scanned into computer files, edited, and analyzed by using the HyperResearch qualitative text analysis program. Three prosecution themes were present in every case: proof that the charged crime had occurred, proof that the defendant was responsible for this crime, and proof of the credibility of the state's evidence of the defendant's guilt. In proving the elements of the crime, prosecutors generally attempted to "tell the story" of the violence, sometimes by including a history of abuse in the relationship and other times focusing only on the violent offense charged. Most prosecutors sought to present some form of corroboration of the victim's account. Defense attorneys generally focused on one of four themes, although there was overlap in some cases: self-defense or provocation, showing that the offense warranted a lesser charge, diminished responsibility, and attempting to raise reasonable doubt that the defendant even committed the crime. The defense used a variety of strategies to pursue these themes. They included attempting to show that the relationships was fine; enhancing the character of the defendant; challenging prosecution evidence as faulty, misleading or inconclusive; and attacking the victim's character. With these strategies, the defense manipulated many common views of abuse dynamics and myths about domestic violence. In order to understand the potential implications of this exploitation of abuse dynamics and myths, the study drew upon research on how jurors make decisions about guilt or innocence in criminal trials. The "story model" of decision making in the trial procedure is the most well-developed model of jury decision making. If jurors accept the commonly held myths about domestic violence, they may "fill in the blanks" with an unrealistic view of the violent relationship, and their evaluation of the evidence may be skewed. Thus, jurors need information about the context of the abusive relationship, because domestic violence is not a commonly understood phenomenon that would make decision making routine for the jurors. Prosecutors must therefore enlighten jurors about the dynamics of abuse by "telling the story" of the abusive relationship. The use of expert testimony is the most direct method for achieving this. A discussion of the implications of the study findings focuses on the use of expert testimony in domestic violence cases, the refining of prosecution strategies and trial techniques, police training in investigative techniques in domestic violence cases, judicial training for such cases, and training for victim advocates. Research limitations are noted, and suggestions are offered for future research. 191 notes, 4 tables

Date Published: January 1, 1998