A Nebraska judge's unusual decision to threaten an alleged sexual assault victim with jail if she doesn't testify could backfire and discourage other women from reporting they were raped, victim advocates said Thursday.
The 24-year-old Kansas woman is appealing the contempt order, saying that testifying about the sexual abuse she endured as a child would cause her deep humiliation. But Lancaster County District Judge Paul Merritt wrote in his ruling that the charges against her alleged attacker hinge on her testimony.
The judge's actions will make the criminal justice system even less attractive to rape victims who are already reluctant to report their assaults, said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, better known as RAINN.
"It's very rare for a judge to hold a victim in contempt, and it's counter-productive," said Berkowitz, who couldn't remember a similar case. The local prosecutor also has said he knows of no cases where an alleged victim went to jail for refusing to testify.
The criminal case against Glen Riensche, 62, of Lincoln, will remain on hold while the woman's appeal is heard. Investigators allege in court documents that he repeatedly fondled and used his hands to penetrate the girl during a two-year period more than 16 years ago.
Riensche has pleaded not guilty to first-degree sexual assault and sexual assault of a child, charges that carry up to 55 years in prison. Riensche, who was arrested last August by the Nebraska State Patrol, is free on bond. His lawyer, Robert Creager, declined comment Thursday.
The woman initially cooperated with investigators last August after her mother reported the alleged assault that took place between August 1992 and August 1994, when her daughter was about 7 years old. The woman described details of the assault to Nebraska State Patrol officers and allowed them to record a phone conversation with Riensche where he admitted touching her inappropriately.
The Associated Press does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
Berkowitz said he understands that prosecutors want to convict Riensche, but he thinks the judge is crossing a line by threatening the woman with as much as 90 days in jail.
"I think they're looking at the case in front of them and trying to get this guy off the streets, but I think it's going to hurt them in the long run," Berkowitz said.
The woman's attorney, Randall Wertz, did not immediately respond to a message for comment. In court documents, he argued that the woman doesn't want to testify because of the disgrace and humiliation she and her children would feel.
"Compelling (her) to testify will cause grave damage that cannot be undone once the testimony is completed," Wertz wrote.
Merritt can't comment because the case is ongoing, Lancaster County District Court Administrator Troy Hawk said. In one of his rulings, the judge said he decided to order the woman to testify because her information is so crucial to this case.
"It is difficult to imagine a more material witness under the circumstances," Merritt wrote.
Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly did not immediately respond to a message Thursday. He told the Lincoln Journal Star that he would not comment on the Riensche case, but said he couldn't remember a time when an alleged sexual assault victim went to jail for not testifying in a case.