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NC Senate passes bill to allow survivors of domestic violence testify remotely

The North Carolina General Assembly building is pictured in Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 13, 2013.

The North Carolina General Assembly building is pictured in Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 13, 2013.

Content warning: This article contains mentions of domestic violence.

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On November 21, 2022, Kayla Hammonds, a 31-year-old woman from Lumberton, N.C., was killed by Desmond Sampson, her ex-partner, in a Food Lion parking lot.

Just three days before, a Robeson County judge had dismissed charges against Sampson because Hammonds failed to appear in court to testify, according to ABC15 News.

Hammonds had obtained an order of protection against Sampson less than a month earlier.

In a request form for a protective order, Hammonds wrote that Sampson threatened to kill her multiple times. Her family said it was the fear of Sampson and his threats that stopped Hammonds from appearing in court, according to Spectrum News 1.

Less than three months later, state Senators and Representatives filed Senate Bill 51 and House Bill 39, both named "Kayla’s Act" after Hammonds. S.B. 51 unanimously passed the state Senate and was sent to the House on March 29 and is currently in committees. 

If passed, the bill will allow survivors of domestic violence to testify remotely, even if the defendant objects.

Kathleen Lockwood is the policy director at the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit organization that works toward ending domestic violence and enhancing the state’s work with survivors.

Lockwood said Kayla's Act is an important step in making the court systems more accessible for survivors of abuse since it would remove some of the barriers survivors face when testifying or getting involved in the court system.

“Many survivors of domestic violence are in trauma responses related to their experience of abuse,” Lockwood said. “And those trauma responses can make it difficult for them to appear in person in front of someone who has recently harmed them.” 

The bill is also a starting point for making court systems more trauma-informed, Lockwood said. 

She said court officials, like judges or attorneys, can sometimes find it difficult to understand the perspectives of survivors. Adding flexibility to how courts handle domestic violence will allow more survivors to participate in the criminal justice process, Lockwood explained.

Helpmate is a support center and advocacy group for survivors of domestic violence in Asheville, N.C. Maggie Slocumb, the center's program director, said Kayla's Act will address a problem that she has encountered many times in her work.

“Folks have told me, ‘If I show up to court, he’ll kill me,’” Slocumb said. 

She said even if survivors are able to testify, there are many ways their abusers could try to intimidate them. During a court hearing, eye contact or small signals that others don't notice can be enough to coerce a victim into dropping charges, she said.

The charges against Sampson that were dropped prior to Hammonds' death were for injury to personal property. In North Carolina, injury to personal property is a Class 2 misdemeanor, which can result in a maximum fine of $1,000 and no more than 60 days in jail. 

Slocumb said many survivors think the limited amount of protection they might receive from misdemeanor charges does not outweigh the physical risk of testifying against someone who has threatened their life.

Another issue she described is the number of times survivors are required to appear in court — because cases can take years to settle, survivors might have to repeatedly relive their experience of abuse. 

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Oasis, another crisis support center in Boone, N.C., offers support groups, emergency shelter, case management and other services for survivors of domestic violence.

Ariel Malec, Oasis's agency operations director, agreed that having to appear in court multiple times deters some survivors from pressing charges at all. She said the “vast majority” of her clients struggled with the same fear Kayla did.

Malec said, in the future, she hopes to see more funding for court advocates — people who provide support and guidance for survivors of domestic violence. Malec said court advocates make systems easier and more accessible for survivors.

Bridget McEnaney, the associate director of domestic violence crisis services at the Compass Center, Orange County's sole provider of emergency housing for those escaping domestic violence situations, said the organization works with many survivors who say they are afraid to go to court. 

She said that, for some survivors, being in the physical presence of someone who has abused them can cause significant mental, emotional and physical distress.

"A glare across the courtroom at a first hearing may not look like much to outsiders but, in the context of an abusive relationship, can be enough to intimidate a survivor into dismissing a protective order or not showing up for future court proceedings," McEnaney said in an email statement. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, the Compass Center offers a 24-hour hotline that can be reached at (919) 929-7122.

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