Edmonton Sun

February 9, 2002

Too many victims recant their statements

By MINDELLE JACOBS -- Edmonton Sun

The media gleefully pounced on the story of the poor bird squashed to death during a domestic dispute.

Last month's cockatiel killing provided an usual twist to the numbingly routine altercations in the inner city. Reporters are always looking for the man-bites-dog story. "Man crushes cockatiel" is just as captivating a yarn.

But the real story - although not as quirky for headline purposes - is that so many victims of domestic abuse still recant their statements when the case goes to court.

The Edmonton city police estimates half of spousal-abuse victims later recant or try to minimize the incident.

Sometimes they phone prosecutors and suggest the battering never happened. Other times they lie on the witness stand at trial. In some cases they don't bother showing up in court at all, hoping the charges will simply be dropped.

But judges weren't born yesterday and they know when an abuse victim's lying because he or she is scared.

And provincial court Judge Paul Adilman knew something wasn't right on Thursday when Brenda Beaudry recanted her statement to a 911 operator that her boyfriend George Wuttunee had killed her pet cockatiel.

She offered an improbable explanation - that the bird simply escaped from its cage and flew into the wall, killing itself.

The 911 tape provided compelling evidence of what really happened. Wuttunee broke the door open and assaulted her. When the startled bird flew out of its cage, Beaudry caught it but her boyfriend forcibly pressed her palms together, crushing the pet.

This is not about a man's hatred for a bird, however. It's about power and intimidation of a frightened victim by a stronger, out-of-control partner. It's a menacing message.

As prosecutor Val Campbell told the judge Thursday: "Batterers abuse women and children alike by hurting the animals they love, implying 'Watch out - maybe you'll be next.'"

Beaudry would be smart to wash her hands forever of Wuttunee, who was jailed for seven months for breaking into her suite, assaulting her and killing the bird.

But many abuse victims find it extremely difficult to leave their batterers. They may be financially dependent on their abusers and have nowhere else to go.

That's why so many victims - about 90% female - recant their statements, says Det. Kim Lafreniere of the Edmonton police department's spousal violence intervention team.

But, unlike in years past, prosecutors don't drop abuse charges just because a victim changes his or her story. If there is enough evidence to lay a charge, the case goes ahead. If the victim doesn't show up in court, a warrant is issued.

Often, the overall evidence, including photographs, 911 tapes and third-party statements, is enough to get a conviction even if the actual victim is reluctant to testify.

In Beaudry's case, the 911 tape was powerful enough to put Wuttunee behind bars.

"The tape told the story. You can tell by the sound of her voice," says Lafreniere.

In fact, the police are using 911 tapes more often in domestic abuse cases because the evidence is so overwhelming, he says.

"Often you can hear people yelling or screaming and the destruction of property, in the background."

Now the Edmonton spousal violence unit is considering using video cameras when investigating domestic abuse situations, as the police do in some Ontario cities.

In Windsor, Ont., for example, police have found that the use of video cameras means earlier guilty pleas and higher conviction rates, says Lafreniere.

That kind of evidence also persuades abuse victims that it's not worthwhile recanting, he adds.

Nevertheless, victims need constant reassurance that help is available when they're ready to flee their abusers.

Support networks are there.

If you're scared and need outreach services, call 496-4777.

It could be the most important phone call of your life.

Mindelle can be reached by e-mail at mjacobs@edm.sunpub.com.
Letters to the editor should be sent to letters@edm.sunpub.com.

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