On the morning of May 28, 2014, around 8:20 a.m., uniformed police bashed down Sheila Kimball’s door in Kennebec County, Maine, and arrested her. Sheila was barefoot and in pink fuzzy pajamas. She wasn’t able to brush her hair or put on shoes. The police handcuffed her. “You’ll be fine,” she recalled one officer barking when she said the cuffs were too tight. They took her to court where she sat in the hallway, still cuffed.
But Sheila wasn’t accused of a crime. She was arrested to compel her testimony against her husband, Richard Kimball, who was on trial for a 2013 incident during which, Sheila said, he banged her head against the floor.
Sheila locked Richard out of the house that evening and called 911, telling the dispatcher, “He beat me to a bloody pulp.” The police came and found Richard on the front steps, barefoot, smoking a cigarette, and with swollen knuckles on his right hand. Sheila was inside the house with a black eye, bruising around her neck, and visible bumps on her head.
Her sister took her to the hospital, where the staff examined her injuries and completed a rape kit. Richard was arrested and held without bail at the Kennebec County Jail because of his criminal history.
Eight months later, when it came time for trial, Sheila had already decided not to testify against Richard and was not planning to go to court. Sheila said that she did not trust the police based on previous domestic violence calls where, in her view, they had not treated her with respect.
She said in an interview that she wasn’t sure she could afford to drive to Augusta for the trial. She told a friend via text that she was angry about how the police had treated her in the past and refused to go to court. She didn’t want to participate. She said she believed this was her prerogative as a victim.
But the county prosecutor felt otherwise. Sheila, still in her pajamas, was placed on the stand. She refused to answer questions aside from her name. “I thought I had the right not to testify,” she said. “I felt really stupid.” The judge held Sheila in contempt and ordered her to spend 24 hours in jail.
Richard pleaded not guilty but was convicted and given a two-year suspended sentence and 44 days in jail as time served. During the sentencing hearing, the judge said that Sheila herself “may be part of the problem.”
The notion that victims have a responsibility to help prosecute their abusers is deeply entrenched in the legal system’s approach to domestic violence. Even as community members, advocates, and local elected leaders across the country debate the merits and feasibility of defunding police departments, support for domestic violence arrests remains relatively high, the product of a long war fought by feminists and tough-on-crime types alike. This has included the arrest and jailing of domestic violence survivors, like Sheila, if they are deemed an obstacle to prosecution.
- Domestic violence calls are one of the few areas of police involvement where an arrest isn’t just encouraged, it’s often mandatory.