Merrimack County Legal professional Dropped Ball On Our Instances: Rape Victims

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Patch News

CONCORD, NH — Nearly a dozen sexual assault victims and the mother of a victim have raised concerns in recent weeks about the lack of action on their rape allegations by the Merrimack County Attorney’s office — with some requesting the New Hampshire Attorney General step in to resolve the inaction in the department.

Victims from all around the county as well as an attorney and an advocate said Robin Davis, who was elected two year ago to the position, has ignored their concerns and point to changes in the office she made that were not in the interest of victims. The accusations come after a tumultuous first term for Davis that involved the dismantling of the sexual assault unit when she came into office, worker intimidation accusations, a lawsuit brought forward by an investigator, and the firing of two long-term prosecutors with the office who she tussled with previously as a defense attorney before being elected.

The sex crimes investigation unit that was dismantled was considered one of the most highly regarded units in the state by advocates. In other published reports, some of the former staff members said the shift in focus from “victim-centered” and “team approaches to prosecutions” and collaboration with police were what prompted their decisions to leave.

The employee involved in the lawsuit, Jennifer Adams, was a sexual assault investigator with the department. She was placed on leave midway through 2019 and claimed she was harassed by Davis. Chuck Douglas, the former Representative to Congress and supreme court justice, is handling her civil complaint in superior court.

Davis’ actions, victims and activists claim, led to a perception by many that sexual assault cases were not a priority.

Davis, however, denies the accusations, and said she was working through changes and efficiencies she was allowed to implement since she was elected by the county to change the direction of the office.

Two Victims And A Mom Speak

Of the women involved in levying complaints against Davis, three agreed to communicate with Patch on condition of anonymity. One victim, and the parent of another victim and her attorney, agreed to speak with Patch directly while another victim submitted written comments. Documents were also submitted to Patch.

One victim was the mother of a girl who was imprisoned, threatened, and physically and sexually assaulted by a family member when she was a teenager between 2013 and 2017. The mother and daughter have an attorney, Patti LaFrance, a former prosecutor, who has been helping the family with the case. The case began with the previous county attorney, Scott Murray, who is now the U.S. Attorney. She said the victim was not able to fully report right away but, LaFrance knew, there was a case there. After the child had her first interviews with advocates, Murray chose not to move forward with the case.

But as the girl began to grow and become more confident in talking about the incident, more information came to fruition, as often happens in child rape or abuse cases. LaFrance approached Davis, she said, about re-reviewing the case. Davis, she said, ignored repeated requests to eye investigatory documents.

“It was like pulling teeth,” LaFrance said. “I tried to say, ‘Hey, former prosecutor here; I’m not just bringing this up.’ I really, truly believe that there is enough to warrant another interview and, potentially, not just another interview but certainly a review and potential charges and actions.”

LaFrance and the mother also contend the suspect admitted to the criminal activity to police. The suspect was also determined to have been abusive by the state’s Division for Children, Youth, and Families.

They both believe he may reoffend because he has not been held accountable for the actions against the girl. Statistics, the mother said, show that as many as 85 percent of perpetrators reoffend.

LaFrance said at least two aggravated felonious sexual assault charges are strong enough to move forward in the case.

Davis, LaFrance said, eventually agreed the department would hold another interview. But, she said, during the meeting, the detective appeared to be just doing it to “check off a box and get it done.” The interview was “very disappointing” because LaFrance felt like she was providing the information to the detective.

The mother was also disappointed and discouraged, and said what she was feeling was probably what others felt and was one of the main reasons a lot of victims do not come forward. Her daughter, she said, had “mentally checked out” when it came to the case.

“It’s just extremely frustrating,” she said. “And, it’s very discouraging to see our legal process be so broken and people that you trust, with the most sensitive secrets of your children’s life, and it’s like, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do but thanks for coming in and thanks for being brave.’ There has to be more to it than that.”

LaFrance admitted during her time as a prosecutor, there were cases she did not pursue because there was not enough evidence or the victim was not ready to move forward. But when that was the situation, she always met with those involved with the case and explained what was going on.

“At the very least, you need to give them a face-to-face sit down,” she said.

At the same time, she also had cases where victims matured and years later, convictions could be obtained. LaFrance said this case was like those.

Thankfully, her daughter, she said, is no longer near the family member and other family members go out of their way to protect her from future encounters. But, she said, that does not fix the prosecutorial part of the process — or that her daughter was never given a reason why the case would not move forward.

A second victim claimed she was raped and repeatedly abused by her husband while living in poverty in a small town, unable to escape, and the county attorney’s office failed to bring charges against him.

Originally from Massachusetts, the woman met her husband quite by accident while having dinner with a friend. It was a whirlwind courtship — they both had children from other relationships, fell in love, and agreed to move in together in a community in the southern New Hampshire. Later, they moved to a town in Merrimack County. The second move brought her further away from her family.

And then, things deteriorated.

The victim, who is Black, claimed her husband, who is Caucasian, began treating her like a slave. She was also isolated without a vehicle or cellphone and their home had no landline.

“I would often refer to myself as Sally Hemmings,” she said.

There were other cases which she referred to as “sweet jealousy” situations — it seemed innocent enough, at first, but then, it changed to be controlling, demanding, and dangerous. At one point, she was able to get a phone but then, he would take it to from her when he got upset. Later, he would say he would change but it only got worse, the victim said. He would sometimes leave her places without a phone or way to get home if another man looked at her.

“By the time I had put it all together, I was pregnant,” she said. “And then, I was stuck.”

After several months of abuse and sexual attacks, and feeling powerless with a house full of kids, she reached out for help. At first, she spoke with state police, a female officer, and then later, local police, and then, she heard from no one.

Her case began, in October 2018, just before Davis won the election, but it was not until mid-July 2019 when she was told prosecutors would not be moving forward with her case — and the announcement came from police, not the county attorney’s office.

Needless to say, she was shocked.

“No one ever called me to tell me they weren’t moving forward,” she said.

Local police assisted her with getting a protective order and but it was not enough. During an emergency incident that required her to receive medical attention, she needed someone to come and watch her children. Police sent her husband despite her requests not to send him. The action led to the nullification of her protective order and now, she said, he comes by their house, flaunting the situation.

When the victim spoke to Davis about the case earlier this year, she was again stunned by what she was hearing — a woman asking another woman “victim blaming statements” like “why did you let him come” to the house during the emergency when the victim stated that she had not, police made that decision, she said. Davis, she said, stated the case would be hard to prove even though she had evidence.

After their meeting, she followed up with an email to Davis, after spending time thinking about their conversation and Davis raising issues of the difficulty of prosecuting sexual assault cases — especially in a he said, she said, situation.

“I completely understand (the challenges) but as I mentioned, there are texts between us that at least ‘suggest’ that I had a problem with it & he didn’t care,” according to an email the victim sent to Davis in June. “I was told when this all started that someone would be coming to take pictures of damages done & locations of fights; as well as transcripts of those texts or the phones containing them; to get names and contact information for any possible witnesses … but that never happened. So, I’m curious as to where any ‘proof’ would have been found?”

The victim said she was told someone would follow up on the case and no one ever did. There was no communication, no victim witness advocate assigned to the case, and all the people on her paperwork had been fired, she said.

“I was speechless,” she said. “I just cried. I didn’t know what to do. I feel like several balls were dropped regarding my case. I still haven’t spoken to Davis again and never heard another word.”

At that point, she took action to empower herself and case — filing a complaint with New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, Googling and calling every domestic violence organization she could find and reach out to. She found solace in several professionals who began helping her and the attorney general’s office began looking into her case.

According to an Oct. 23 letter from Heather Cherniske, an assistant attorney general, investigators met with Davis about the case on Oct. 16 and were surprised that her paperwork “did not contain a copy of (the victim) interview or any substantive police reports.” The letter said it appeared that an attorney in the office declined to prosecute the case without ever looking at the investigatory documents. Cherniske said it was the office’s position that the county attorney’s office “should request these items and the full case, re-review it, and let us know your decision.” She added, “This will allow us to make a meaningful determination as to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in this case.”

A third victim is a young female artist involved in a mentoring relationship with a man who was three decades older than her.

During the apprenticeship, she accused the man of taking advantage of medical issues she had, sexually assaulting her, and abusing her via email.

In April, she reported the incident to local police and was asked if she had proof of anything. She immediately felt the police chief was not taking the case seriously despite the struggle it was for her to come forward.

“Being met with a sense of discouragement made me immediately wonder why I was bothering to put myself through more pain,” she later said in a letter to the attorney general.

After being interviewed, the victim heard nothing from investigators. She emailed the police chief and received no response and others attempted to find out what was happening with her case. She then found out the case would not be moving forward from her crisis center advocate.

She, too, was surprised that she was left hanging for weeks and weeks without a word about the case.

The victim then requested a copy of the investigatory report and heard from the chief — who sent “a quick communication” saying he thought it was given to the Merrimack County Sheriff’s Department, due to the lack of resources at the local level. But, in fact, the case had been sent back to the police department for further investigation, she said. The officer assigned to finish the investigation, she added, “never contacted me.”

Eventually, she met with an attorney with the county and a local police officer and the experience was traumatic, she said, due to the attorney making statements that triggered her and made her suspect the attorney had no trauma informed training. After speaking, the attorney said the case would probably not be moving forward since “no crime was conveyed” in the woman’s verbal testimony, a decision she was “dumbfounded by” since she had shared “painfully explicit” recounting of the multiple accounts of rape involved in her allegation. The officer, she claimed, said her emails “read like a novel” and the evolving relationship between the two looked as if she had consented.

“He spent several minutes defending the rapist,” she said. “He gave no attention to any of the evidence to the contrary and made no response to my reutterance of evidence to the contrary.”

She said the attorney and officer “assured me” that they would be back in touch as decisions were made about the case but never did. Weeks and months went by.

“No communication,” she said, “just silence.”

In August, she contacted the attorney general, too, by email raising issues about the lack of a case, the demeanor of the investigators, and CC’d Davis in the email.

In an email to Patch, the victim said her concern was that the county attorney and others were “not setting the appropriate example” and believed that “the harmful current culture in the Merrimack County Attorney’s Office is filtering out into other law enforcement offices.” If local police were not taking appropriate steps and attitude toward victims of sexual assault, was it discouraging victims from coming forward, she wondered. Victims, she said, were already worn out by the crimes they endured.

“How many more victims need to speak up before incompetent and harmful individuals like Robin Davis are removed,” she said, “and we are finally taken seriously and treated with respect and dignity?”

Domestic Violence Advocate Responds

One advocate in the state said she had been shocked by the lack of follow through and changes made to the office which has clearly hurt victims.

Amanda Grady Sexton, the director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the pattern of behavior from Davis since she took office, needed to be refocused in the wake of the wave of complaints from victims.

Sexton said less than two months after being elected, “victims of domestic and sexual violence began contacting the coalition office to report complaints about her.” In one case, a victim reported that Davis insinuated that she was not telling the truth and asked her why she did not fight back against her abuser, Sexton said. Another was asked by Davis why she did not call law enforcement sooner if she believed that she was raped, she claimed. Another victim said Davis said a man who raped her needed treatment, not jail time, Sexton said.

At least 13 staffers in an office of around two dozen have left the department, she added.

“Multiple victims have told the coalition that her office never consulted them before a case was dropped or a plea deal was offered,” she said. “We’ve heard from former employees who report that Davis has made outrageous victim-blaming statements that reflect her personal bias against female victims of sexual and domestic violence. It has become clear that oversight of that office is necessary to ensure that felony level crimes of domestic and sexual violence are properly investigated and prosecuted, and that the legal rights of victims are not violated.”

Davis Admits To Problems And Improvements

Davis, a Democrat, won her party’s nomination earning nearly 1,400 write-in votes in 2018 because there was no one else running. After being nominated, she bested Paul Halvorsen, a city prosecutor and the Republican nominee, by about 2,500 votes. She faces off against Halvorsen again on Nov. 3.

Davis vehemently rejected the criticism that her office was not handling sexual assault cases saying the perception was not true and were surprising to her. She admitted she did make changes to the office but most of them, she believed, were needed.

“Most of the changes that I made came from my own experience and knowledge on the other side of these cases,” she said. “And how the state was processing these cases.”

As far as closing down the sex crimes unit, Davis said it was done because “it was very clear to me there was redundancy” and she thought it should be one prosecutor’s sole job to handle all rape cases from start to finish. Before, she said, one set of attorneys would gather all the information and hand the case off to the trial attorney, a process she called difficult and not efficient. Davis said it had been her experience that victims want to know who is directly involved with their cases, who is going to help them through the process, and who is responsible for telling the victim’s story.

“Especially if they lose the case,” she said. “It was not consistent before; it is about good, consistent client relations and client support.”

The cases are now spread out to seven different attorneys. She said she was proud of the team’s work because they were “really hard cases, emotionally and mentally, working with the victim, facing terrible facts” and some prior attorneys were more burned out than others.

Wayne Coull, a prosecutor with the office for nearly 15 years, was recently awarded 2020 Every Day Hero award by the Merrimack County Advocacy Center, the org that handles many of the interviews with rape victims. The org, she said, “works very closely” with them, “almost every day,” and called Coull, “a very seasoned prosecutor” who was also trained to handle cybercrimes.

David said a decision to forward a case was made by the prosecutor and not her. When asked if she looked at every case and the prosecutor’s decisions, she said, “No.” But, Davis added, she had faith in her team to do their jobs properly.

With the three specific cases, Davis said she was not familiar with the artist victim who claimed to be raped repeatedly by her mentor.

In the child case, she said she believed the case should have been forwarded by the previous county attorney when both the victim and the perpetrator were children and should have been dealt with in juvenile court. She said it would be difficult to circle back with the case and hope to get convictions against an adult who was a child when they committed the crimes. But, when pressed about whether lesser charges could be pursued, like misdemeanor sexual assault charges, Davis said it was possible and that was something she should consider now.

In the case of the interracial couple, Davis said she was familiar with the case, it started before she came into the office, and the decision was made before she came into the office to not pursue the case. She did confirm she had received the attorney general’s office letter about the case and could not speak about specifics since it was an open investigation.

In general, Davis said, the department does take referrals from police departments seriously and looks at all the evidence before determining whether to prosecute a case.

“I just want the community to know that this office is still doing excellent work involving sexual assault,” Davis said, adding, there was “always room for improvement.”

Davis said the first 18 months had been “a steep learning curve” but “I feel I have both feet firmly on the ground now. I’m doing a much better job now. I will continue to be productive and make positive changes.”

And, when there are shortcomings or concerns with police agencies or officials, “We will work with them … When I’m reelected, it is only going to get better.”

Editor’s note: As policy, Patch does not use anonymous sourcing for stories but has made an exception in this case due to the victims being willing to come forward and for their safety and protection. Patch is also not mentioning the names of the accused or the communities where all involved live or the investigating agencies. Patch has verified the victims had actual cases in the county.

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