By: Carolyn Hidy
Anyone who has suffered the trauma of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or even partner strangulation, may be glad to have Molly Owen in their corner.
A prosecutor with the Lake County District Attorney’s Office since October 2018, Owen specializes in bringing domestic violence and related cases to justice. Since then, she and her team, including law enforcement; Vera Johnson, victim witness specialist/coordinator in the prosecutors office; and Safe Harbor; have gained experience, training, and confidence, and increased efficiency by adopting paperless, digital filing. They have cleared a backlog of cases and improved conviction rates from 72% to 90% — quite a feat considering that they are charging 60% as many cases as Missoula County, with about a quarter the number of attorneys.
But the job is not all about the numbers. Owen is invested in the victims.
As a prosecutor, Owen said she is trained to be a fighter, and concentrate on facts and details. But dealing with victims of domestic violence and related trauma requires something more — empathy.
“It can be difficult for victims to come forward for many reasons,” said Owen. “It can be hard for people to understand someone dealing with unhealthy relationships, and who may never have known a healthy one.”
Last May, special training in “trauma informed victim interviewing” helped her listen better. She lets them know, “You don’t deserve to be hit. We’re here for you when you are ready,” rather than pushing them into court right away.
“Developing a good relationship and providing victims with resources they need helps them be more willing to follow through with the charges. They know there’s a human being behind their case,” Owen said. With multiple people on the team, including counselors and others at Safe Harbor, victims are able to find someone they personally feel comfortable confiding in.
Safe Harbor in Ronan is a source for help. It offers a domestic violence victim shelter, advocacy to help them through the court process, and therapists. A civil attorney, Hilly McGahan, assists with matters such as orders of protection, divorces, custody, parenting plans and other issues not directly related to prosecution of criminal charges.
Owen said each case is its own puzzle, with different solutions each time. But one case shook her to her core.
A victim had reported a rape to law enforcement immediately after it occurred. The person had submitted to all medical examinations and interviews, as recommended, to establish a clear evidence trail, which can be exhausting, humiliating and expensive. The examining nurses testified about her injuries. Yet, the jury still found the accused person not guilty.
“It’s always a question of what to do, when you don’t know if the jury will convict, no matter how solid you think your case is,” Owen said. “Sometimes victims will choose the certainty of a plea agreement that may include the offender pleading to a lesser charge, and therefore likely getting a lesser sentence.”
But it can help create a record in case other charges are brought in the future, allowing for longer sentences. Owen explained, “We don’t go forward with a plea agreement without an explicit OK from the victim. We want them to know their voice on the outcome is heard.”
Safe Harbor paid for Owen to go to a valuable national domestic violence training in Denver in May 2019.
“I came away with so many ideas that we implemented,” she said.
As one example, calls from jail inmates are recorded to ensure calls are not used to intimidate witnesses — one key reason victims may choose to not testify.
The process they were using was cumbersome and required a lot of time and effort for the prosecutor as well as already overburdened law enforcement personnel. Now they monitor the calls in a more streamlined process, through a website. Monitoring these calls can help prevent a case from being dismissed due to a witness being unwilling to come forward to be interviewed. Sometimes this is enough to get an offender convicted of felony witness tampering, rather than force the victim to face the traumatic jury scene.
Owen’s position is funded by a federal grant, which also helps provide training for local law enforcement. In 2019, a University of Montana law professor taught them how to build a domestic violence case if the victim is not going to engage in the process — a “victimless prosecution.”
Every Lake County deputy received training on understanding strangulation, as a new law was passed making strangulation its own category of felony. Other training includes updates on the 2019 stalking law that makes it easier to prosecute stalking cases, and help with effective enforcement of orders of protection.
In other recent improvements, the number of orders of protection granted by Justice Court have greatly increased, due to better preparation; Justice Court amended its “no contact” order to better allow offenders to be charged for violating the order and contacting the victim; and the court saw its first use of a therapy dog that sat with a victim as she testified, a great comfort, according to her.
Owen is scheduling talks in schools on consent, sexual harassment and assault, and domestic abuse. High school-aged women she has encountered are brave and savvy compared with even a few years ago, she said.
“They know their rights and are very aware of what sexual harassment and abuse are,” she said.
Working constantly with traumatized people can take a personal toll, Owen noted. Many on the team are offered counseling to help them deal with the difficult emotional aspects of the job.
“You never get to walk completely away from work,” she said, with the added challenge of balancing the work with being a mom to a toddler.
It’s teamwork that makes it possible, she stressed. “I could not do anything without Vera, a dedicated, passionate, intelligent professional, nor without Safe Harbor.”
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By: Carolyn Hidy