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In Rural Areas, a Ceaseless Struggle to Get Domestic Abuse Victims to Testify

Whitney Bryen-Oklahoma Watch

On a March morning in 2017, Tamera Moore, a 38-year-old woman living in the southeast Oklahoma town of Valliant, began the day with a bitter argument.

She and her boyfriend, Geoffrey Briley, began quarreling and she told him she wanted to break up. He grabbed her neck, threw her onto a bed and began biting her face and lips, court records say. He left, and Moore went to the hospital.

For months, police, prosecutors and even a judge pleaded with her to testify in court. But Moore refused, and prosecutors dropped the charge in June.

Two months later, Moore was found dead – shot in her home. Police arrested Briley at the scene and he faces first-degree murder charges. He pleaded not guilty.

The Moore slaying points to a dilemma that district attorneys in Oklahoma wrestle with on a continuing basis: When a domestic violence victim refuses to cooperate in prosecuting an alleged abuser, should prosecutors pursue the case anyway? Or is it a waste of time or even harmful to the victim to press ahead when the chances of a conviction are diminished?

Moore’s death riled up residents of McCurtain County, with some accusing prosecutors, law enforcement officials and victim advocates of not doing enough to prevent her death.

Officials say the case has become a cautionary tale, and they are more determined than ever to not let an uncooperative victim stop them from pursuing domestic-violence cases using other evidence.

But it’s not easy, and district attorneys have differing views.

Oklahoma has many small towns where everyone knows everyone else, which is often a point of pride. But that can also mean domestic-violence victims feel isolated.

They may not report abuse to police or seek help out of fear their story will become public or no one will believe them, prosecutors and advocates say. It’s not uncommon for a family member to work in law enforcement or at the local hospital where a victim would seek treatment for injuries.

District Attorney Chris Boring, who represents Alfalfa, Dewey, Major, Woods and Woodward counties near the panhandle, says there remains a deep stigma around domestic abuse, especially in rural areas. But many small-town jurors still don’t understand why a victim wouldn’t speak up. That makes it difficult to win a trial without the victim’s testimony, even when there are photographs, medical records and witnesses, he said.

The reasons for the silence are multifaceted and complex, says Liz Vaughn, executive director of McCurtain County’s domestic violence shelter.

Victims of intimate-partner violence are isolated from friends and family, she said. Many don’t have jobs and can’t afford to move. They don’t have a way to support themselves or their children if they leave. They worry no one will believe them and speaking out will only make things worse. They’re afraid for their own life and the lives of their children. What if their kids are taken away? They feel powerless and don’t know where to turn.

Some victims still care for their abuser and don’t want them punished, advocates say.

But police and prosecutors want to hold domestic abusers accountable. Otherwise, the violence can escalate and lead to homicide. And in Oklahoma, the problem is severe. Newly released data shows that in 2018, Oklahoma’s rate of domestic-abuse incidents reached the highest level since 2012; there were 25,864 reported abuses.

Find out more about Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit media organization that covers public policy issues,  at oklahomawatch.org.”