State v. Thornton

Ruth Laura Edlund

Case Conclusion Date:September 3, 1992

Practice Area:Domestic Violence

Outcome:Spouses can testify about crimes by spouse-perp

Description:The State Supreme Court found that the spousal incompetency to testify against another spouse under RCW 5.60.060(1) does not apply when a spouse is alleged to commit a crime against another spouse. Before this Supreme Court decision, there was a requirement that the crime had to be a crime of "personal violence," which had been narrowly construed. In Thornton, where the charge was a charge of residential burglary with a threatening tone (the estranged husband had slashed the wife's bed with a knife), the case had been dismissed at the trial court level based on the wife's disqualification as a witness. The Northwest Women's Law Center filed a brief as amicus curiae, and I argued in the brief and before the Supreme Court in favor of the elimination of the the requirement that the crime be one of "personal violence," or in the alternative for a ruling that domestic violence was by definition "personal." In a 9-0 decision, the Court ruled: "We conclude that the policy reasons set out in Kephart are based on a view of the marriage relationship which is no longer accepted. It is hard to conceive of any credible justification for preventing an injured spouse from testifying in a criminal proceeding against the perpetrator. Certainly, the marital relationship has already been damaged, and if criminal activity is occurring, no legitimate purpose is served by refusing the victim of the crime the opportunity to testify against the person who committed it. The 'sanctity of the marital relation' should not be preserved at the expense of one spouse's safety or peace of mind."