Updated: Jan 9, 2021
One common frustration for the judiciary in domestic violence cases is the frequent recantations and/or failure to appear at trial by victims. The reasons behind this phenomenon are far too complex to describe here. However, I recently had the pleasure of meeting one of these victims who not only told her story, but did so in a way that, like ripples from a pebble thrown in water, eventually changed the course of federal law.
Diane Millich grew up on the Southern Ute Indian reservation near Durango, Colorado. When she was 26, she fell in love with and married a non-Indian man. On the third day of their marriage, he hit her, which was her first experience with domestic violence.
Because he was white, the tribal police could not arrest him. The county police could not arrest him because he was white living on reservation land, over which they had no jurisdiction. During one beating, he even called the police in front of her, just to show her how powerless she was.
After a year of abuse and more than 100 incidents of being slapped, kicked, punched and living in terror, Diane left for good. But as so many victims discover, leaving your spouse can put you at greatest risk. One day, he went to her workplace with a gun, telling her, “You said in our vows till death do us part, so death it shall be.” Only a co-worker pushing her out of the way and taking the bullet in his shoulder allowed her to escape.
After leading the police on a high-speed chase, her husband was eventually caught and sent to prison—for shooting the co-worker and the wild chase on non-reservation land. For attempting to kill Diane, he plea bargained to aggravated driving with a revoked driver’s license. Despite these episodes of terror, Diane refused to meet with the DA’s office or make a statement. She retracted the ones she made after the shooting. “I was a complete non-compliant victim of crime,” she said. Eventually, an investigator at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation asked Diane to take a ride with him. In the back of the car, she could smell the sheets of a Native American sexual assault victim. The investigator told her that the victim was not able to testify, but that Diane still could make a difference if she told her story. At that point, Diane told herself she would not stay quiet any longer.
Not only did Diane testify at his trial, she told her story to Congress during Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) re-authorization hearings in Washington, D.C. The primary hurdle impeding the Act’s 2013 re-authorization was a controversy about allowing Native American tribal courts to prosecute non-Natives on domestic violence incidents that occur on reservation land.
One Senator said VAWA was “being held hostage by a single provision that would take away fundamental constitutional rights for certain American citizens.” But in the end, the re-authorization passed with the addition of tribal authority for prosecution. President Obama asked Diane to speak at a signing ceremony, which you can view here.
Today, Diane loves her violence-free life with her “Ute bestie” Myron in Ignacio, Colorado. There, she operates a food truck, “Diane’s Tortilla Burgers.” This spring, I was happy to play a role in bringing her in as the keynote speaker at the Rose Andom Center’s annual gala in Denver.
During one court hearing years ago, Diane found herself overwhelmed and unable to talk. She remembers the judge telling her, “It’s okay. When you’re ready to speak, I’ll listen.” Diane now tells other victims that if they can’t speak for themselves, she’ll speak for them.
I learned from Diane that one small pebble can make a thousand ripples. So, when in doubt, toss your pebble into the water.
By Veronique Van Gheem, written in partnership with Andrew Maikovich, Colorado Judicial Educator.
Veronique Van Gheem is Senior Assistant Legal Counsel for the Colorado Judicial Department. Ms. Van Gheem works in the Executive Division of the State Court Administrator’s Office providing general advisory counsel for the Colorado courts, probation departments and the State Court Administrator. She is a Chair of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association Publication Committee. She is also a member of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee, the CBA Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee and a Lead Attorney for the Project Safeguard Spanish-speaking Family Law Clinic. Any views or opinions reflected in this publication do not reflect the position of the Colorado Office of the State Court Administrator or the Colorado Judicial Department.