A Story About A Horrible Case Of Domestic Violence And Its Impacts
What would you do if you found out a female friend of yours had been assaulted by her partner?
A few decades back you might have thought it was none of your business but in our more enlightened society you’d probably think about calling the police, right?
But what if she begged you not to? You don’t want to upset her but you don’t want to see her end up dead either. This is a story of what can happen when a man tries to stick up for a woman.
I first met Suzanne back in the eighties through her brother, Jonny, who I used to play music with but I didn’t know her well and when I moved to Auckland in the early nineties I lost touch with most of the people I knew in the South Island. I didn’t even come down much to see my parents until I was in my fifties and they’d both got old and frail and needed my help. Johnny had moved overseas but Suzanne and I quickly reconnected and whenever I was down south we’d meet up regularly and put the world to rights over a few beers.
I thought we’d become good friends. Life long friends! This wasn’t a boy\girl thing. We just had a lot in common and enjoyed each others company.
In 2017 I decided to move back to the South Island for work reasons and I was looking forwards to seeing Suzanne more often. I knew she’d split up with her husband and got custody of their two teenage children. I also knew she had a new partner called Richard.
When I first met him he seemed like decent kiwi bloke although he was a few years older than us and definitely a bit more conservative. In fact I was there the first time they met. I’d come down to sort out a few things before I moved south permanently and Suzanne and I went out for a drink. Richard had overheard our conversation and made an amusing comment so we invited him to join us. Some sparks were obviously flying (although I didn’t notice them at the time) and they got together shortly afterwards.
Within a couple of weeks of being back in the South Island I noticed Sue seemed different. Where she had once been keen to come out almost all the time now it was very difficult to get her to commit and when I did see her she seemed a lot quieter and more reserved.
One day in July we did manage to meet up for a quick drink and it wasn’t long before she told me she’d just had a nasty argument with Richard during which he’d assaulted her and choked off her breathing. I was really shocked and scared for her and I told her to go to the police but she didn’t want to. They’d both been drunk and she thought she’d probably provoked him and besides they’d broken up now. It wouldn’t happen again but then a few days later I heard they were back together once more. The next time I texted her and asked if she felt like going to the pub she asked if Richard could come too.
“No way” I said. “Not after what he did to you!” I just didn’t see how I could possibly sit down with them and pretend everything was OK when this man had hurt my friend.
So we didn’t see each other that night or for some time afterwards either. Every time I suggested we go out she asked if Richard could come along as well.
For several months we hardly saw each other and I found out she wasn’t seeing many of her other friends either. I kept on texting her but she wasn’t prepared to see me without him. I tried to convince her she should be able to see her friends, male or female, without a supervisor but she wouldn’t budge. She just kept on denying that she was in an extremely controlling relationship when it was blindingly obvious that she was.
One night in November I got a couple of free tickets to a local band and asked if she wanted to come. Surprisingly this time she did accept to come (without Richard) but went straight home after the gig. About a week later she asked if I wanted to go and see one of her daughters acting in a play. I knew Richard would be there but it seemed as if Suzanne and I might be getting our friendship back on track.
Afterwards they both came back to my place and we had a few drinks. Richard was very friendly towards me but it seemed a bit disingenuous and I still had a bad feeling about the guy.
This impression was soon vindicated when I got a call from a local detective asking what I knew about an assault on Suzanne. The first thought that came to my head was that he’d killed her but luckily this wasn’t the case. The cop told me he’d got my number off her phone and seen the text messages where we’d discussed the ‘suffocation’ incident. He told me Richard had assaulted Sue again a few days after we’d last seen each other and four charges had been laid against him.
I soon learned that Richard had actually assaulted her on a least three occasions, the time that I knew about in July, another time I didn’t know about and most recently in November when the police had been called to her house after Deirdre, a close friend of hers, had reported that Sue’s face and body were a mass of bruises. The police had taken photos of these injuries after she’d had been to the doctor to get patched up and she’d admitted to them that, on this occasion at least, Richard had beaten her up.
I smoke a bit of cannabis so I usually try and keep the police at arm’s length but violent crime is a whole other matter. Against my better judgement I’d already keep quiet about one assault and now it seemed there might have been two more. How many times should Richard be allowed to assault her before I got involved and said something? Once? Twice? Three times seemed plenty! It had become very clear that this was an ongoing pattern of behaviour and if none of us stood up in court he might even kill her.
New Zealand has the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world. In just one recent summer holiday period; six women were killed by their partners creating nineteen orphaned children!!! To try to address this awful situation three additional offenses were added to the law books in late 2018: ‘Strangulation’; ‘Assault on a person in a family relationship’; and ‘Coerced marriage or civil union’.
The reasons for behind defining strangulation as a new and separate offense is that this sort of behaviour is now widely considered to be one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence with unconsciousness sometimes occurring within seconds, and death within minutes. It’s a red flag for future serious abuse and possible death and since the new law came into effect police are charging up to five people a day with the offense.
So, with some of these facts in mind I went down to the police station the next day and made a short statement about what I remembered Suzanne telling me about the assault six months before. Then I rang her and asked to see her urgently. We met up at a local coffee bar (without Richard) and I told her I’d told the police everything I knew. She was very upset! She said she thought I was the last person who would ever speak to the police and besides it was “all hearsay” anyway. Afterwards several fairly heated texts were exchanged where I tried to persuade her I simply couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. What did she think I’d feel like if he killed her? As Deirdre later said “We’d rather have an ex-friend who hated us than a dead one.”
I think the way Suzanne had come to see the situation was that we (the witnesses) were out to ruin her and Richard’s lives. She wasn’t his victim but ours and we were now the aggressors threatening their life together.
A few months later I got my first summons and appeared at court with Deirdre and Donna, another one of Suzanne’s ex-friends who had also decided to testify. It would be a judge only trial and Richard was given name suppression through-out. But before things could get underway Suzanne had to appear first to see if there really was a case to answer to. All three of us had warned the lead detective that knowing Suzanne as we did she would never willingly appear and none of us were surprised when she didn’t turn up that day and the case was adjourned.
The same thing happened a month later and the case was adjourned again for another month while the police tried to persuade Suzanne to turn up to court.
A few years ago and the police would probably have given up on a case like this where the victim was refusing to appear but there’s a different climate regarding serious domestic violence now and they were convinced they had enough evidence and witnesses to mount a prosecution without her. But they decided to give her one more opportunity to appear. Of course she didn’t and a warrant was promptly issued for her arrest for ignoring a court summons and a ‘Wanted’ photo put up on the local Police’s Facebook page.
By this time Suzanne had convinced many of her relatives and supporters it really was us who were the problem, not Richard. It was our fault he was being charged and it was our fault her photo was up on the Police’s Facebook and damaging their reputations. If we’d only shut up the whole thing would just blow over! One of her relatives even posted this comment under her ‘Wanted’ picture on the Police’s Facebook Post.
“She not running, she laid up in a fancy hotel(sic).... rolling her eyes at this Facebook shit ………and her shit stirring friends need a good boot in the head. “
It seemed absurd to me that Deirdre, Donna and I were now being threatened with violence by a member of Suzanne’s family for doing our utmost to protect her from violence.
I can’t tell you how much we hated every minute of this drawn out process and there were many times when we talked about pulling out of it if we could have without being charged with contempt of court ourselves.
The other issue I had to face was telling Johnny what was going on. If anyone could talk some sense into her it might be him but he was getting conflicting messages from all directions and didn’t know what to believe. The other person I thought I had to tell was her ex, Matt. He still saw their two teenage daughters regularly and I thought he needed to know what was going on because I knew Suzanne would be trying to hide her bruises from her daughters and down-playing the whole thing like it wasn’t an issue. They needed to know the truth to stop them from possibly ending up in a similar situation themselves in the future.
Eventually the police found Sue and she was arrested and bailed for avoiding three court summonses and after a year of trying everything she could to make Richard’s case disappear she was finally forced to appear in court. She told the judge that two of the three alleged violent incidents merely involved the defendant slapping her, nothing more severe! The incident she told me about had simply never happened. I’d just made it up! We were trying to force her and Richard apart because we were nosey, petty and jealous.
The judge deemed her evidence to be drastically at odds with both the photographic evidence and the witness testimony and she was declared ‘a hostile witness’.
When it came time for Deirdre to give her evidence she said that shed’ seen bruises on Suzanne’s neck after she’d come back from a trip to Australia and encouraged her to go to a doctor and the police then but Sue had just brushed it off as nothing. She also testified both herself and her partner met with Suzanne a few days after the final incident - the one which led to all of the charges being laid. Before they came round Suzanne had made her "promise not to freak out'' because her face was a bit of a mess. As well as the obvious damage to her face there were also bruises on her collar bone. Donna, who was also at the house that day testified that Suzanne looked “swollen and bruised’’ and “walked with a limp.”
The three of them managed to convince her to see a doctor (who also gave evidence) but she’d been adamant she didn’t want police involvement. Like me Deirdre wanted to be loyal to her friend but how many times could she see her life being threatened?
“How do you think I’d feel if you died? Put you in my shoes” she’d told Suzanne.
“You’re just being selfish!” was the response. “You care more about your own conscience that you do about me!”
"I lost my best friend through this” Deirdre said in her testimony. “We haven’t spoken since.”
I learned from the court news that the first of three incidents alleged by the police took place when the pair attended a family function. A doctor testified the assault was so serious she’d suffered a permanent injury.
The second episode was the one she’d told me about and the third happened when among other things, Richard had punched her while she was driving which resulted in her crashing the car!
A month later I was called to give evidence myself. Richard had employed a well known lawyer who was known for playing hard ball in cases such as this so I tried to mentally prepare myself as best I could. Suzanne was there to support him in the dock.
It’s not easy to remember all the details of a conversation that occurred over a year ago and Richard’s lawyer tried hard to undermine my testimony on two main fronts. Firstly, could I be absolutely 100% sure that she’d used the word, ‘strangled’ when she described the attack? I said I couldn’t. The way I remembered it she’d described being forced against the wall by his elbow and she hadn’t contested the word in text messages between us (which had been brought into evidence). Secondly wasn’t it true we always smoked so much marijuana when we got together that I/we couldn’t tell Arthur from Martha.
This made me angry, as it was probably supposed to. While its true Suzanne and I did smoke together sometimes I denied we did it all the time and I didn’t think we’d had a smoke before she told me what he’d done to her. I later found out Deirdre’s evidence was attacked on the same basis.
So on top of being threatened to have my head kicked in and called a liar it had also gone onto the public record that I was smoked a lot of marijuana.
I didn’t want to blame Suzanne but she was the one who’d supplied this damaging information. I had to just keep on telling myself it wasn’t her fault. It was Richard’s.
I just hoped one day she’d see that Deirdre, Donna and I really didn’t have any other choice and that we’d talked to the police because we really loved and cared about her and not for any other reason.
At the end of his deliberations the judge found Richard guilty on three out of the four charges and imposed a sentence of eleven months' home detention. It didn’t seem like much of a punishment but he had spent three weeks in jail after the final incident and lost his job.
I’ve thought about this situation a lot wondering if I should have done anything differently. It seems to me as if there are three obvious choices when someone you know is being bashed up by their partner.
Firstly, do nothing at all if they don’t want you to.
You should be loyal to your friend’s wishes and let them sort it out. Who knows? Maybe the ‘victim’ had a part to play in the violence or maybe it was just a one off event which wouldn’t be repeated. If I hadn’t talked to the police perhaps Sue and I would still be friends but I still believe a big part of being someone’s friend is not standing by when their partner’s beating them up. If we’d all done nothing she might even be dead now.
Secondly, we could have done exactly what we did? We made the correct decision. We tried to be loyal to our friend by not going to the police when she asked us not to but when it became obvious he was continuing to beat her it forced us to act. The result was they both hate our guts but the attacks on her have hopefully stopped and if he was convicted again he’d probably go to jail.
Thirdly, we should have gone to the police the first time she told us he’d beaten her. If I’d done this it might have saved her from two even worse attacks. The upside might have been giving him enough of a shock to change his behaviour now the police were fore-warned and Suzanne would be safer. The downside would have been less likelihood of a conviction and they’d both hate our guts for ever.
What do you think? Did we do the right thing? What would you do in a situation like this? Stay ‘true’ to your friend or ‘nark’ on them to try and keep them safe?
Mike Reid (2020)