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Hernando State Attorney's Office gets tough on false reports

BROOKSVILLE — She said he picked her up and threw her to the ground. He said she fell.

What happened the night of Jan. 20 at a home on Coachlight Lane in Brooksville sounds like a typical domestic violence dispute.

And indeed it sparked a familiar chronology: a 911 call, a police report, an investigation, an arrest and eventually criminal charges.

But in early June, the case took an unexpected turn when the woman, Tara Whittaker, recanted her sworn statement.

The same day, prosecutors dropped the case against the alleged abuser, Tommy Harris, a sheriff's deputy, and lodged criminal charges against Whittaker for filing a false police report and perjury.

Domestic abuse cases are intricate, and alleged victims often change their minds about prosecuting their domestic partners.

But Whittaker's case is the first in recent memory where an alleged domestic victim was later charged with making false statements. And she's not alone. In the same month, two more women were similarly charged after they reneged on statements of domestic abuse.

The reversal is a product of a new mind-set at the Hernando County State Attorney's Office.

Supervisor Don Barbee, who took the helm in April, said he wanted to send a message that his office will not tolerate bogus accusations. He believes those who make them should go to jail.

"Law enforcement officers are extremely frustrated they respond to these crimes every night and then they get a disposition statement that it was later dropped," said Barbee, a former police officer.

The new approach concerns advocates for domestic violence victims, who worry it could complicate an already complicated situation. Advocates work hard to promote the idea that help is available when someone is abused, but the perception created by the new policy could squelch victims' willingness to come forward.

Studies suggest that less than half of all battered spouses report the abuse, said Debbie Andrews, executive director for the Dawn Center, a domestic violence shelter in Spring Hill.

"The word will get out," she said. "You can only hope the true victims won't be afraid because of that."

Michelle Rio, the center's legal counsel, said a rigid legal system can sometimes deter future victims. "It would make me think twice before picking up the phone and calling police," she said.

In the Brooksville prosecutor's office, Assistant State Attorney Amy Germann handles domestic violence cases.

More times than she can count, a victim has come into her office and begged her to drop the case against a spouse or boyfriend. The victims provide an assortment of reasons: It was a misunderstanding. He's really a good person. My spouse was just drunk. And even, I deserved it.

"Some fear that if they come in and talk, they'll be hurt worse," she explained.

Whittaker's attorney, Peyton Hyslop, said his client submitted a statement denying the abuse to end the case.

"She just wanted the case against him dropped, and they wanted to move on with their lives and work out their personal problems … without the involvement of the state of Florida and the government," Hyslop said.

But prosecutors contend the letter Whittaker wrote is clear.

"My previous statement was wrong and I stated things that (were) out of anger," she wrote, according to a copy obtained by the St. Petersburg Times. "He did not push me, throw or drop me. … I fell to the ground."

"I don't often have victims come into my office and tell me they lied," Germann said.

Barbee made the decision to arrest Whittaker and file perjury charges. His office intends to elevate the charges to felony court later this month to set an example.

But at the same time, Barbee does recognize the potential problems caused by arresting one-time victims.

"Yes, obviously I am a little bit concerned," he said in a recent interview. "I'm also concerned about a very high rate of cases we have to (drop) because there' no evidence. I feel like there's something that needed to be done."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Hernando State Attorney's Office gets tough on false reports 07/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 8:56pm]
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