In the fictional world of movies and TV, you’ll see detectives interviewing witnesses after a crime while a forensics team in matching white lab coats dusts the scene for fingerprints, gathers up suspicious items in plastic bags and carefully photographs broken windows.
In real life, things are a bit different. For survivors of domestic violence, often they have to become their own detectives, gathering up as much evidence as possible in order to prove the abuse ever happened. In fact, here are 23 different types of evidence survivors can collect on their abusers.
Taking the Stand Isn’t Enough
However unfair as this may sound, it’s a reality for the millions of domestic violence survivors out there. Their testimony of the abuse is hardly ever sufficient on its own. In fact, taking the stand against their abuser can often backfire, says attorney, activist and author of the blog Argue Like a Girl, Giugi Carminati, JD.
“Victims have a tough time being believed,” she says, especially when their account of the abuse comes under attack. They’re often accused of suffering the after-effects of abuse—things like cognitive impairment, memory problems and paranoia—and their testimony can be called into question as a result.
“When those things come across on the stand, they easily get turned into credibility attacks when, in fact, they support their allegations of abuse,” says Carminati. “If it comes down to he said-she said, the victim will lose.”
That’s why, Carminati says, witnesses are an important piece of the evidence game.
Did Anyone Else See It?
If survivors can find someone else to corroborate their account of the abuse, someone who saw it or heard it firsthand—known as a bystander witness—or if there is a qualified mental health counselor who is trained in domestic violence trauma and who can testify on a survivor’s behalf—known as an expert witness—the case will be stronger.
“I subpoena every person I can subpoena to corroborate my client’s account,” says Carminati. “It is important for those witnesses not to overstate, not to be mean-spirited, but stick to describing facts. It won’t win the day for sure, but they certainly tip scales in favor of the victim.
A Safe Way to Record It?
Making recordings of an abusive incident, including harassment, threats or violence, would be helpful in court, but could place a survivor more at risk, not to mention an abuser could access the recording and destroy it. Instead, Narrah Patton, a domestic violence advocate with Safe Austin, suggests survivors call a trusted friend or family member when an incident is escalating.
“That person may record and store it on their own phone, to which the abuser does not have access,” she says, but admits that this is not an option for all survivors.
“Either because they have been so isolated from friends and family or because it simply is not safe for them to call someone in that moment,” she says.
Another option: An app called ICE BlackBox allows you to record a video and then automatically stores it in the cloud and sends it to your “in case of emergency contact” to prevent it from being destroyed.
Don’t Keep Evidence on You
Survivors who collect evidence—audio or video recordings, screenshots of text messages, threatening emails, a diary or log of abuse—should not keep that evidence in a place where the abuser can find it, like at home. This not only places the survivor at additional risk, but the abuser will most likely make sure that evidence never sees the light of day if discovered.
Says Carminati, “The best way to get evidence out is to start emailing it to their lawyer. I ask my clients to send me the evidence, right away, as they get it. They can also drop off at my office. What most matters is to get it out from where the abuser may be able to get access to it.”
What if you don’t have a lawyer? See if a trusted friend, family member or coworker can store the evidence somewhere away from your home.
Are You Being Tracked?
As crazy as it may sound, survivors also need to consider the possibility that an abuser has installed spyware on their computer, phone or other devices. This could allow an abuser to see what a survivor is storing or sending, such as evidence. Read “How to Spy Spyware On Your Phone” to see what you should look for. Finding spyware could be evidence in itself—in some states, it constitutes stalking. If possible, speak to an attorney about providing evidence of this in court.