"Victim Protection" by Jill McCabe Johnson

Jill McCabe Johnson

Jill McCabe Johnson

Jill McCabe Johnson (she/they) is the author of three poetry books, two chapbooks, and editor of three anthologies. Her most recent poetry book, Tangled in Vow & Beseech (MoonPath, 2024), was named a finalist for the Sally Albiso and Wheelbarrow Books poetry prizes. Jill is editor-in-chief of Wandering Aengus Press and its imprint, Trail to Table Press. She spends her free time writing, hiking, and in close observation of the natural world.

Victim Protection

The County assigns Beth, a Victim’s Advocate, to your case. Under the Regional Justice Center’s fluorescent lights, she helps you apply for “victim protection.” Since the program has practically zero budget, all that really means is you’ll get a fake address, so your ex-business partner, ex-boyfriend Liam, can’t track down the basement apartment where you and your pre-teen son have moved since the attack. The advocate will update you on Liam’s trial and offer emotional support if you need it. You have friends and family, you think to yourself, you don’t need the State to pay someone to offer emotional support. Like other targets of stalking, what you really need is help keeping you and your son safe.

“How many guards will be in the courtroom?” you ask.

Beth tells you not to worry. Liam will be well guarded.

“But how many?”

“Only one,” she says, “but they’re very well trained.” With twenty-plus years of martial arts experience, so is Liam. You ask for extra guards. You know that once you take the stand, Liam will consider it a betrayal. You’re not sure what he will do, but you know what he can do.

On your first day of testimony, before the defendant and jury enter the courtroom, the prosecuting attorney advises you not to discuss certain topics. You can’t speculate about Liam’s paranoid delusions and psychotic break or mention the crimes he’s a prime suspect for but hasn’t been charged with—including the two arsons. You can discuss what it cost you to replace all the windows broken out of your car but not estimates for the damage his two bats did to the car’s body and chassis. You also can’t discuss how much it will cost you to fix your front door after he tried to break it down, again with the two bats. The threshold between a misdemeanor and felony for property damage is $1,000, and the repair estimates you got but can’t afford to pay for yet don’t prove actual costs. The judge has ruled that only the receipts for what you’ve already paid will be allowed as evidence. That amount turns out to be just shy of the felony threshold.

With the judge’s blessing, the prosecution and defense have struck a deal and dropped Liam’s charges to a misdemeanor. You have no say in the decision. Maybe with a misdemeanor they think Liam’s more likely to get mental health treatment outside the system than in it. Maybe they figured they’d cut the guy some slack, a boys-will-be-boys attitude, that Liam was just letting off a little steam, and, after all, no one got hurt. The cynical side of you speculates about how a felony trial requires a lot of time and resources. Especially if a slam dunk misdemeanor is a better bet for the prosecution than a less certain felony conviction. The defense attorney keeps his client out of prison, and the judge has an easier trial to preside over with less likelihood of an appeal. It’s a win for everyone, you think. Everyone but you and your son whose safety seems to be at the bottom of their list. You look at the three men—the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney—and think how you’ve heard about cases where the system was rigged against female victims, but those were in the past. Surely not now. Not after all the attention brought to gender violence and women’s rights. Isn’t this a more enlightened age?

After Liam gets led into the courtroom and the jury files in, the prosecution calls on you to testify. Your Victim’s Advocate, Beth, escorts you to the witness stand, past the defense table where Liam sits in a borrowed suit, too big for his emaciated frame after many months of living on the street. The sole guard leans against a far wall. You’re sworn in, and the questions begin. Can you identify the defendant? How do you know him? The prosecution lays the groundwork of your relationship, both personal and professional. You want to paint a picture of the gentleman Liam was when you first met and how mental illness changed him from someone you love into someone you fear. Except—remember what the judge cautioned—you’re not a qualified professional and can’t diagnose his irrational and violent behaviors as an illness, mental or otherwise. You get around this by mentioning how many friends begged him to get psychiatric treatment as his behaviors became more erratic.

On day two, questions about the incident begin. You answer factually—not only because you’re under oath, but because of how Liam will view your answers. If you’re lucky, he’ll assume you’ve been subpoenaed and are simply complying with the law. More likely, he sees you as part of the grand conspiracy. At worst, he’ll think it’s a setup—that you signed up for self-defense classes all those years ago to ingratiate yourself so you and the other evil-doers could lock him up in jail, a master plan for your quest to take over the world. Knowing his reasoning is unpredictable, nearly comic-book-like in its paranoid scenarios, knowing he takes what he hears at face value, sometimes as a suggestion of what he should do, when the attorney asks, do you think you’re in danger, you answer indirectly. “Liam’s a ninth-degree black belt. That’s about as skilled at martial arts as a person can be.” When asked if he’s threatened you, you say, “He told me he planned to kidnap me and take me away.” You don’t bring up whether that might have included breaking every bone in your body with the aforementioned bats. For one thing, you aren’t 100% certain he would have hurt you. Possibly. Okay, probably.

On day three, the prosecutor enters the receipt from repairing your car windows as evidence. He shows them to you and asks you to validate that these are your receipts.

Your answer is carefully worded. You want to give the jury some clue to the actual damages. You want them to know how you’ve been railroaded by the legal system, even though, since this is now officially a misdemeanor trial, there’s not much the jury can do. On the other hand, what if they, like so many others, are predisposed to favor male perpetrators in these cases? You don’t want to risk them letting Liam off more lightly, too, so you answer, “Yes, I haven’t gotten the rest of the car fixed or replaced my front door, doorframe, and handle.”

The judge reminds you that only receipts are admissible, and you reply, “Yes, I remember. Anything I can’t afford to pay for yet, even though it’s listed in the police report, doesn’t count as damages.” You hear what sound like exasperated but knowing sighs from a couple of the jurors.

Before you leave the witness box, Liam stands. He raises his eyebrows in a beseeching expression, lips slightly apart. The entire courtroom seems frozen in place, or maybe that’s just you. Liam’s attorney tugs at his sleeve. “Sit down,” he says. But Liam ignores him. The guard doesn’t budge.

You don’t take your eyes off Liam. You don’t dare. You know from sparring him in the past, he could cross that space in a flash. In an instant, he could take you down and probably a handful of guards, too. From the corner of your eye, you see the jurors’ heads swivel from Liam to you and back again. The defense attorney tugs on Liam’s sleeve once more. Liam removes the jacket and starts unbuttoning his shirt to an intake of breath from several jurors. Beth sits in the back of the courtroom, near the door. Liam unbuckles his belt. His attorney tries to pull Liam’s clothes together, but Liam doesn’t break eye contact with you as he unzips his pants. When the guard finally steps up to help the defense attorney, Beth dashes forward and sweeps you off the witness stand, past Liam’s table, barely outside his reach. His eyes follow you. In them you see surrender, sorrow, confusion.

In the parking lot, you sit behind the wheel of your Honda, shaking still with fear. Or compassion. Or guilt. Maybe regret. What could you have done differently, you ask yourself. How could you have helped him? How can you stop blaming yourself? How can you stay safe when he’s ultimately released?

The next day, Beth calls to tell you the verdict. You’re the Publications Manager for the Gates Foundation, where out of a misplaced sense of shame you’ve kept your years-long stalking situation a secret. Your co-workers know nothing about Liam, nothing about your emergency moves dragging your son from one new residence to another, and nothing about this week’s trial. You take the call outside.

“They gave him the maximum sentence,” Beth says.

“That’s good,” you say. “Right?” But when Beth doesn’t answer right away, you brace yourself. “The problem,” she finally responds, “is he’s already served more than the maximum sentence.” Cars speed past then brake for the light at First Avenue. Across the street, pigeons perch atop an Art Deco facade. With your work’s windows behind you, you think, ‘If only I smoked, I wouldn’t look so conspicuous, standing here doing nothing on this empty sidewalk.’

“You still there?” Beth asks.

“I’m here.”

“They’re releasing him at midnight tonight,” she says.

Up the block, you can see into the park now taken over by unhoused people. A place Liam could easily wind up, where he would blend in, and no one would notice. “Tonight?’

“Yes, I just want to make sure you’re safe,” Beth answers.

You don’t tell her that’s what you thought the police and courts were supposed to do. What you thought she as a Victim’s Advocate would do. Instead, you ask, “What about the no-contact order? Did the judge approve that?”

She tells you the judge approved an order that specifies Liam isn’t supposed to come near you or your son for the next five years. She’s quick to add that when the judge issued it, Liam told him, “But you don’t understand, your honor. I’m obsessed with her. Your little paper means nothing to me.”

You glance toward the park. More cars whiz past. More pigeons alight on the ledge like targets in a shooting range. A siren wails in the distance.

Before she hangs up, Beth cautions you to be careful. “Make sure you’re in a safe place.”