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Brooklyn DA candidates discuss women’s issues at organized forum

August 10, 2017 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Candidates for district attorney in Brooklyn discuss policy ideas during a forum at the YWCA. From left: Ama Dwimoh, Patricia Gatling, Acting DA Eric Gonzalez and Anne Swern. Eagle photos by Rob Abruzzese
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The National Organization for Women-New York (NOW) hosted a forum with four of the six candidates for Brooklyn district attorney to discuss issues related to women at the YWCA Brooklyn in Boerum Hill on Thursday, Aug. 4.

Candidates Ama Dwimoh, Patricia Gatling, Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Anne Swern took part in the discussion that touched on many of the usual topics, but took an in-depth look at women’s issues including the complications of prosecuting rape and domestic violence cases.

Prosecuting Acquaintance Rape

One of the first questions asked was about acquaintance-rape cases and what specific measures the candidates would take in prosecuting these cases so that they are treated as harshly as rape committed by a stranger.

“One of the plans I have is to change the complaint room, to make the system a vertical system, so that we have experienced attorneys, not new assistants, in the complaint room so that these case would be handled the way they should be,” said Gatling, who has 15 years of experience as a prosecutor with the Brooklyn DA’s Office.

“It’s very important for me as the DA to spread that message, to make sure the ADAs who work for me understand that I won’t accept that a case is treated less seriously because the persons are known to each other,” said Gonzalez, who added that he has raised the salaries of assistant district attorneys working in the Special Victims Bureau.

“Our police department has been known to say that it’s not a real rape if they know each other … let’s make sure our police department doesn’t speak like that,” said Swern, who added that better training needs to do done across the criminal justice system including in the courts, at the police department and even among social workers.

“What I found that was essential was that there had to be vertical prosecution,” Dwimoh said. “When you are the victim of sexual assault the last thing you need to do is tell your story over and over and over again to so many different faces whether you are an adult or a child.

When you do that it undermines you as a victim … I would commit to vertical prosecution, I would commit to the use of social workers, and most importantly I would bring back the Crimes Against Children Bureau.”

Drug Rape

Prosecuting drug rape cases can be difficult as the victims often experience memory loss and the drugs can sometimes leave their system in as little as 24 hours. The candidates were asked what they would do to prosecute these cases.

“We created a forensics unit in our office because one of the problems we had in these cases was that the drugs being used change so often so testing protocols don’t always coincide with the types of drugs being used,” said Gonzalez, who has more than 21 years of experience at the DA’s Office and became acting DA after former DA Ken Thompson died last October.

“We need protocols in place in our hospitals so that testing can be done quickly so that the chemicals will still be in their system,” Gonzalez went on to say. “The ADAs have to be up on the medicine, we have to continue to look at who the perpetrators are.”

“There are tons of cameras around now, the friends of the people who they were with, there is so much circumstantial evidence in these cases that has to be taken apart one by one,” Swern said. “It’s not so hard to try a circumstantial case if you take the time and patience to pick every piece of evidence that happens.”

“For us in New York, we need to change the statute,” Dwimoh said. “NYS law makes it difficult to prove these cases because Rape 1 requires the victim has to be unconscious. In California the statute is simply ‘unable to resist.’ That makes prosecuting these cases much easier. Change in the legislation is key to these types of cases.”

“I would create a task force that would work with the legislature to make changes, but also work to see what kinds of protocols that we have in the office that need to be changed,” Gatling said. “And collaborate to have that same task force with groups like now that would help us to establish these protocols. This would be an ongoing task force that would work with the medical community, the legal community and with victims.”

Domestic Violence

The candidates were asked about the most difficult aspects of prosecuting a domestic violence case.

“We have to remember that we need to broaden the definition of who is the victim of domestic violence, it’s not just her. It includes him and other people,” said Dwimoh, who worked at the Brooklyn DA’s Office for 21 years and led the Crimes Against Children Bureau.

“Domestic violence affects our families across the board. The biggest hurdle is that there is a relationship … One of the biggest hurdles in domestic violence prosecution is that we’re not broadening the definition to include everyone.”

“Right now the police department is trying a program where they put social workers in the precincts themselves to support the DV police officers,” Swern said. “But at Night Out Against Crime, I spoke to officers and asked if they were there yet. They said, ‘No, we’ve been waiting, we’ve been told this month, last month, the month before.’ I think it’s incumbent upon the DA herself to have leadership qualities and to make sure those police officers have the support.”

“What we have to do is meet the victim where the victim is, that would require a team,” Gatling said. “We should create a team in the office that will deal with victims of DV at the onset, including a social worker, someone from the medical profession and lawyer who can have the conversation about what we’re going to do to make this situation better.”

“One of the things that happens is that the victim calls the police and by the time the case gets to court there is often pressure on the victim to not press charges,” Gonzalez said. He went on to add, “Evidence based prosecution can be done, but we need to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can do. We’re drafting our complaints differently to put in more things that if the victim later doesn’t want to be cooperative, we can have details so that the complaints and the cases won’t get automatically dismissed.”

 

Cross-Complaints

The candidates were asked about how they would handle cross-complaints in domestic violence cases.

“I was managing counsel at Brooklyn Defenders, I saw firsthand what happens when the victim of violence becomes charged with a crime for defending herself,” said Swern, who was an ADA for 33 years. “I think this goes to the DA”s responsibility to look at each case on its merits.”

“Last year we were looking at statistics in DV cases … the police department had stopped making individual determinations on who was the initial aggressor … so what we did was we had a training with the police department supervisors and said that we would no longer going to accept these cases as cross complaints unless there was evidence that truly justified them,” Gonzalez said.

“When I was at the Human Rights Commission, women would file complaints there because they didn’t want to file a complaint with the DA and involve themselves in the criminal justice system,” Gatling said. “We have to determine if there are other options. We’re not just talking about the two individuals, we’re talking about a whole family. We need a team, like I talked about.”

“The key lies in the Early-case Assessment Bureau, the first stop in the criminal justice system,” Dwimoh said. “It is key to have experienced prosecutors there evaluating these cases. That’s where you can actually begin to understand what the story is and who is who.”


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