Louisiana District Attorney Says Rape Survivors May Go To Jail If They Refuse To Testify

by Megan Zander

Louisiana DA Leon Cannizzaro wants a conviction, even if it means putting rape survivors in jail

Approximately two out of every three sexual assaults go unreported. People like Leon Cannizzaro are part of the reason why. The Louisiana District Attorney told WWL he’s perfectly okay with putting a rape survivor in jail if they refuse to testify against their attacker. “If I have to put a victim of a crime in jail for eight days in order to keep the rapist off of the street for a period years, and prevent him from raping or harming someone else, I’m going to do that,” he said.

His comments came on the heels of an report by Court Watch NOLA which criticized the practice of prosecutors using material witness warrants to incarcerate victims and survivors who refuse to testify. Executive director Simone Levine told the press said that the move to jail someone for refusing to testify is a “real disincentive.” The report says the practice of incarcerating assault survivors who are unwilling to testify should not be taken lightly. The prosecutor should consider “the seriousness of the offense, the strength of the case, and the public interest in punishing the defendant.”

What Cannizzaro fails to realize is how emotionally devastating testifying can be to someone who’s been through a sexual assault. These survivors are trying to process their own emotions surrounding what happened to them, along with the complex issues that come with stepping forward to speak out against your attacker. Sometimes the attacker is someone you have a history with, or is a member of your family. No matter what your relationship is to your attacker, there’s the chance that you’ll be blamed for what happened to you with questions about what you were wearing or if you were under the influence of any substances the night of the attack. And you could put yourself through all that just to have your attacker walk away anyhow. Remember Brock Turner? We sure do.

The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment does allow the defendant in a criminal prosecution to confront the witness against them. But facing your attacker can be extremely traumatic for some assault survivors. They need resources to help them deal with what happened, not being jailed and made to feel like they’re just as guilty as their attacker. Rather than threatening them with incarceration if they don’t want to testify, prosecutors should be doing whatever they can to avoid having to ask an unwilling survivor to testify.

The Court Watch NOLA report points out you don’t always need their testimony to get a conviction. “[S]ometimes an assistant district attorney has sufficient evidence to establish their case beyond a reasonable doubt even when the victim fails to cooperate. This evidence may include but is not limited to: a recording of a 911 call made by the victim, a recording of a call made by the aggressor to the victim from jail (for example, threatening the victim if the victim testifies), or a police body-worn camera recording a statement made by the victim.”

While it’s understandable that a prosecutor would want to make sure an aggressor is both punished appropriately for their crimes and isn’t free to harm someone else, jailing an innocent rape survivor and making them feel like they’re the one who’s in the wrong because they’re afraid to testify is completely ass-backward. They’ve already been traumatized once. Isn’t once enough?