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Donít Jail Crime Victims for Not Testifying
Sun Jul 2, 2017 19:26

Donít Jail Crime Victims for Not Testifying

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Credit Jasu Hu

My friend Deborah Cotton, a courageous activist and journalist in New Orleans, died on Tuesday from wounds that resulted from a shooting at a parade in 2013.

After that incident, I had the privilege of working with her at Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, an organization that gives crime victims a voice in public policy.

Deb wanted solutions to crime that prioritized safety and economic investment in the community, rather than ineffective ďtough on crimeĒ approaches.

Like many others in her position, who perhaps fear retribution or that their interests and those of law enforcement donít align, Deb had decided not to testify in the prosecution of the crime that led to her injury and ultimately her death.

Her essay on that decision, written last month, is below. Although she was in and out of the hospital for years, her independence and fiery conviction never wavered. She will be enormously missed by everyone who knew her.

ó Robert Rooks, vice president at Alliance for Safety and Justice

NEW ORLEANS ó Itís been almost four years since I was shot in the stomach at a New Orleans parade on Motherís Day. When two young men shot into the crowd, 18 others were also injured.

I am a local journalist and was covering the parade for a New Orleans paper.

The bullet landed in my stomach and tore through internal organs.

However, when it came time for me to talk to the prosecution, I was reluctant for several reasons.

Every day people are shot, raped, robbed, beaten or hurt in New Orleans.

If you are black and from the community, do you pick up the phone and report the crime?

Do you open the door when the police come to ask if you witnessed the crime? What will the prosecutor do to you if you donít cooperate?

Recently it was reported that the office of the district attorney of Orleans Parish is arresting and incarcerating victims who get scared and refuse to come to court to testify.

Court Watch NOLA, a community group of volunteers who monitor New Orleansís criminal courts, issued a report showing that in 2016 alone, our prosecutor arrested and jailed six victims after they refused to come to court to testify for the prosecution.

Four of these victims were survivors of attempted murders, one victim was a rape survivor, and the last survivor had a gun aimed at her.

Our district attorneyís office tried to arrest nine other crime victims for failing to cooperate, but could not find them.
Deborah Cotton self portrait Credit Deborah Cotton

Arresting victims for failing to testify for the prosecution fosters a sense of powerlessness by further victimizing the person.

And it is a show of aggression by our elected officials who are supposed to be the authorities we turn to so that our sense of stability in our community can be restored.

These old-school tough-on-crime prosecutors are behind the times. They approach crimes with a heavy-handedness.

They ignore feedback from the community on what type of recovery is needed.

New Orleanians have legitimate cause for concern when reporting a crime.

Our police department has been under a federal consent decree since 2012, which means our police departmentís track record for civil rights abuses has been so bad that the federal government has had to intervene.

If we canít depend on our police force and our prosecutors to not attack or take advantage of us, how are we supposed to trust them with the ďwho did itĒ information that could get us killed?

The district attorney in New Orleans is not the only prosecutor jailing crime survivors when they get too scared to testify in court.

The district attorney of Harris County, Tex., arrested and incarcerated a rape victim for failing to return to the stand to testify against her assailant.

The rape victim had a mental breakdown when she was forced to testify in court; her trauma and fear were just too overwhelming, the support she was offered by the prosecution insufficient.

That district attorney lost her re-election in part for jailing that rape victim.

Harris Countyís new district attorney, Kim Ogg, was elected based on her promise to never arrest victims for failing to come forward.

When it came to my own cooperation with the prosecutor, I was reluctant.

Iíd finally clawed myself out of a pit of grief, despair and PTSD and I wanted to live again.

Why should I risk my health to testify for the prosecution? In my case, there were more witnesses and victims than normally would agree to cooperate.

The outrage caused by perpetrators opening fire into a crowd of innocent New Orleanians on Motherís Day broke down the communityís reluctance.

Additionally, our United States attorney, not our local district attorney, prosecuted the case. That made a difference, too.

I also didnít want to be part of the machine that sent men from my tribe to prison.

As a black woman working on criminal justice reform, it breaks my heart to watch scores and scores of black and brown men in orange jumpsuits going into the tunnel of no return.

We need our prosecutors to be community prosecutors.

We need prosecutors who will work with us so that we can build trust.

We must believe that our prosecutors see lasting public safety as the end goal, not jail.

District attorneys must promise to listen to the needs and desires of crime victims and never ever arrest a survivor who is too scared to testify.

Deborah Cotton was a writer in New Orleans.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 7, 2017, on Page SR2 of the New York edition with the headline: Donít Punish Crime Victims. Today's Paper|Subscribe

May 08, 2017 News Ľ Commentary

Commentary: Remembering Deborah 'Big Red' Cotton
Fearless, fierce, compassionate, and taken far too soon

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    • Donít Jail Crime Victims for Not Testifying — PS POST, Sun Jul 2 19:26
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