A Florida judge is under fire for berating a victim of domestic violence, then having the sobbing woman handcuffed and sent to jail because she refused to appear at her alleged abuser’s trial.
Seminole County Judge Jerri Collins ripped into the woman at a July 30 contempt of court hearing and sentenced her to three days behind bars. A viral video of the appearance, released by a local TV station, exposes the judge’s callous treatment.
“You had indicated that you were not going to show up [to court], knowing that you were under subpoena,” Collins, 53, told the young mother.
“So now you need to tell the court why I should not hold you in contempt of court,” Collins continued. “I can sentence you to jail, so tell me why.”
In response, the 27-year-old woman tried to describe the depression and anxiety that resulted from allegedly being abused by the father of her 1-year-old child. “My anxiety… this is every day for me,” the victim sniffled. “We were trying to separate and…”
“Why didn’t you show up to court?” Collins interrupted.
“I’m just, my anxiety…” she replied.
“You think you’re going to have anxiety now? You haven’t even seen anxiety,” Collins told the woman in the footage published this week by WFTV Channel 9.
The accused abuser, identified in a police report as the woman’s husband, was to face trial for allegedly choking her inside a Florida residence on April 2. During the incident, according to the report, he grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed a staircase where she was seated. When she walked away and picked up her toddler, he pushed her head into the microwave, according to cops.
At the contempt hearing, Collins reminded the victim that a jury was called to try the state’s case against the unnamed man, who prosecutors say has a prior domestic battery conviction.
“You were required to be here by a court order,” Collins seethed. “You disobeyed a court order knowing that this was not going to turn out well for the state.”
“Is it true what you told police?” the judge continued. “Those statements you told to police on the day of this incident… was it true?”
When the woman answered in the affirmative, Collins asked, “Then why wouldn’t you come to testify?”
The woman said she told a state victim’s advocate she wished to drop the charges against her husband, because the last time he went to jail, he lost his job and was unable to pay child support.
“I’m homeless now. I’m living at my parents’ house… I had to sell everything I own,” the woman cried, adding, “I’m just not in a good place right now.”
That’s when the judge announced, “And violating your court order did not do anything for you. I find you in contempt of court. I hereby sentence you to three days in the county jail.”
Then Collins flatly ordered, “Turn around,” as police handcuffed the woman.
“Judge, I’ll do anything. Please,” the woman wailed.
“You should have showed up,” Collins coldly replied.
“I have a 1-year-old son, and I’m trying to take care of him by myself,” the woman said. “I’m begging you. Please, don’t.”
But it was too late. The woman, who turned to the Florida criminal justice system for help, was now being punished.
The man accused of abuse spent 16 days in jail for alleged battery, according to prosecutors. The victim spent three.
Jeanne Gold, the CEO of SafeHouse of Seminole, an organization that aids victims of domestic violence, said the judge’s high-profile rebuke sends the wrong message to silent victims thinking of coming forward.
“I was absolutely appalled and disappointed with the judge,” Gold told The Daily Beast. “This is wrong. We do not treat victims of violence this way.”
“To put her in jail was ridiculous,” she added. “Even if they were so angry... why not give her community service hours [at a local shelter]? She could be with women here who are going through the same thing she is.”
Gold, a former domestic violence prosecutor herself in Seminole County, said it’s rare for such cases to reach trial. She questioned why the state picked a jury knowing the victim witness repeatedly refused to testify.
“Why would they waste taxpayer dollars and time? What did they think, that they were going to muscle her into court by this order?” Gold fumed.
Gold also questioned why the victim didn’t have an attorney with her at the contempt hearing. “The system failed her. She reached out, and it failed her,” Gold told The Daily Beast.
The advocate said she’s received several calls from local attorneys willing to help the victim expunge the misdemeanor contempt conviction from her record, free of charge.
Meanwhile, Phil Archer, state attorney for Florida’s 18th judicial circuit, issued a statement defending his office’s order to show cause against the victim for failing to cooperate.
“Victims of domestic violence can be in emotional turmoil, but their cooperation with the criminal justice system is integral to this Office successfully prosecuting such crimes,” Archer said in a statement.
“The victim refused to attend court the day of trial, going so far as to tell the State Attorney’s Office that she didn’t care if she was arrested as a result of her not complying with the court’s subpoena,” the office continued. “The victim’s decision… triggered the State to pursue an Order to Show Cause against her, and the Court’s subsequent sentence.”
For her part, Judge Collins has declined to comment. A state spokeswoman told The Daily Beast that judicial code prohibits Collins from speaking on the matter.
Still, at least one Seminole County attorney plans to file a complaint against the judge with the state for failing to provide an attorney for the victim before she was questioned in the contempt hearing, WFTV reported.
Attorney Brian Byrd told the TV station that direct contempt cases, which can include an outburst in court, don’t require an appointed attorney. However, the woman’s case was indirect contempt, because the violation of the subpoena took place outside the courthouse, he said.
“It’s indirect contempt. She didn’t issue that subpoena, the state attorney’s office issued that subpoena. She has the right to an attorney,” Byrd told the station. “She was forced to incriminate herself directly.”
Appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, Collins previously worked in private practice and at the Seminole County state attorney’s office, where she prosecuted crimes against the elderly and disabled.
She won 51.1 percent of the vote in a contested election last year. In a videotaped interview of candidates with the Orlando Sentinel, she told a reporter, “When we talk about the judicial temperament… some of my weaknesses have become my strengths.”
“Like in any occupation… we become better the longer we do it,” Collins added. “In the beginning, as a judge, what may have been perceived as direct came off lacking in tact and lacking in patience.”
The incumbent judge declared she wouldn’t let her emotions affect court proceedings.
“And I understand there needs to be compassion… [but] we can’t be overly compassionate,” she said, adding, “It’s not your wishes, desires, or opinions of the law that matters. It’s the law itself and being fair to both parties.”