NEWPORT — Katrina McCullough lashed out at Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett in May as a judge was getting ready to decide on a sentence for her husband.
Barrett had won a domestic assault conviction against Ryan McCullough. Her evidence: Katrina McCullough sobbing on a 911 call saying that her husband had bent her fingers back during an argument.
But McCullough begged a judge for a light sentence for her husband, saying Barrett had refused to introduce evidence that she said would have given a full picture of what had happened that night.
Barrett’s answer: “There are times where, from the state’s perspective, people need protecting even if they don’t want protecting.”
Public safety, she said, is the significant driving force behind her prosecution techniques.
“This is a standard that all prosecutors start with,” she said.
Barrett, one of Vermont’s four female prosecutors, has made the aggressive prosecution of domestic abuse cases — even against the wishes of the victim — the hallmark of her career as a prosecutor.
How she got here
Growing up in Brattleboro, Barrett had always wanted to be a lawyer, and had always been interested in criminal law.
She had worked part-time as a deputy state’s attorney in Orleans for six months shortly after graduating from University of New Hampshire law school in 2011. Then she went to work as a deputy for State’s Attorney Erica Marthage in Bennington.
Marthage has a reputation for aggressive prosecution.
A report from 2014 by Vermont’s Department of Corrections stated that Bennington County locked up more residents per capita than any other place in the state. (Marthage said the numbers were misleading.)
Barrett was Marthage’s domestic violence specialist, spearheading the prosecution of abusers. Barrett said she knew little about domestic violence before she was assigned to those cases. But once she started, she developed a passion for pursuing this work.
Bennington, she said, was where she first encountered a victim who fought her when she tried to prosecute an abuser.
The state — represented by Barrett and her colleagues — was convinced the woman had been assaulted, she said.
“A year or two later, she came to me and said ‘you saved my life,’” Barrett said.
Orleans County calling
Barrett’s reputation as a prosecutor willing to bring tough cases to trial would lead her to the northern edge of the state where her mission is to hold abusers accountable.
In 2014, Barrett, then 28, was still working in Bennington, about 200 miles from what would become her office in Newport.
Orleans County’s law enforcement leaders — fed up with what they said was then-State’s Attorney Alan Franklin’s lax approach to criminal justice — wanted her back.
Franklin, Newport Police Chief Seth DiSanto said, was declining to prosecute so many cases that his officers were beginning to lose motivation.
Franklin disagreed with the chief’s characterization of his tenure as prosecutor and said he looked at the merits of each case individually, but declined to comment further.
Orleans County Sheriff Kirk Martin said he called Barrett. Newport Police Chief Seth DiSanto said he also recruited her. They convinced Barrett to challenge her old boss.
Barrett said she liked the Northeast Kingdom. She had friends there and thought it would be a good place to raise a family. She thought she could give back to the community.
“I thought that I could give back to the community and make this office better than it was,” she said.
Barrett made her trial record a central part of her appeal to Orleans voters.
“I have tried more cases last term than the Orleans County State’s Attorney’s Office combined,” Barrett argued in a 2014 campaign video.
Since taking office, she’s brought at least nine domestic violence cases to trial, she said.
In 2017, Barrett — who said she still handles the county’s domestic violence docket herself — brought three domestic violence misdemeanors and one domestic violence felony to trial, according to a report by the Attorney General’s Office.
Chittenden County, with about six times the population, saw no felony domestic violence trials and one misdemeanor.
The right approach?
Victims who recant, or who stop cooperating with the state’s attorneys, are a persistent challenge facing prosecutors — especially since abuse often takes place at home, behind closed doors and away from witnesses.
Sometimes, advocates say, holding an offender accountable through the criminal justice system isn’t the best thing for a victim.
Victims recant or turn hostile because of a variety of reasons, ranging from shame to guilt to financial dependence according to a document created by the National District Attorneys Association to establish guidelines for prosecuting domestic violence.
In Orleans, which has one of the state’s highest poverty rates, factors like transportation, buying heating fuel, or limited job opportunities become barriers for women who want to leave.
“The idea that victims recant is a false construction,” said Auburn Watersong, the policy director for the Vermont Network Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “A lot of times what happens is a victim is planning for their safety.”
When the system is working right, she said, the state takes responsibility for prosecuting an abuser while giving the victim space to make the safest choices for herself.
“That is saying that the offense has been committed against the community,” she said.
Ultimately, however, prosecutors represent the state, not the victims, said Teresa Garvey, a former New Jersey prosecutor who now trains other prosecutors on how to handle domestic violence cases.
“We really just cannot put the prosecution process in the hands of an individual,” she said.
Sending a message
Barrett believes the aggressive prosecution of domestic violence cases sends a message — and is encouraging more people to come forward.
When she first arrived in the Kingdom, Barrett said she was getting a larger number of incidents that fit the definition of aggravated domestic assault — because people were reluctant to report.
“They’d be waiting until there was a strangulation or broken bone or something really terrible that had happened,” she said. Only in talking to the victim would her office learn about a history of abuse.
The Newport police chief said he thinks Barrett’s approach is working.
“I feel like the public has definitely gotten the message,” DiSanto said, adding his officers are seeing a decrease in repeat offenders.
Barrett said that she tries not to take it personally when a victim lashes out at her, that she understands the attackers are frustrated by the system.
“It’s sometimes a hard position to be in — to be determining what’s best for the community,” she said.
Contact Jess Aloe at 802-660-1874 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jess_aloe