The domestic violence case against Morgan Hill City Councilmember Larry Carr was dismissed Aug. 20, after the alleged victim refused to answer questions under oath during a brief bench trial.
Prosecutors from the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office asked the judge to dismiss the charges, acknowledging that without the woman’s testimony they couldn’t prove Carr committed the crime of domestic battery.
“We evaluate every case based solely on the evidence we can present in a courtroom,” Santa Clara County Deputy D.A. Vishal Bathija said after the Aug. 20 trial. “Often we can and do proceed with a prosecution even when a victim refuses to testify. Unfortunately in this case, the weight of the evidence rested in the testimony of the victim. Because the victim refused to tell the judge what happened on the night of Nov. 25, 2017 or during the 2015 incidents, we could not prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Carr, 49, waived his right to a jury trial on the charge of misdemeanor domestic battery, which the D.A.’s Office filed against him in relation to a November 2017 incident with his live-in girlfriend at the time, Barbara Ristrim. The Aug. 20 trial was a bench or court trial, a proceeding in which the judge is tasked with weighing the evidence and testimony, and determining the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
Carr pleaded not guilty to the charge at a previous hearing.
The alleged battery incident took place at the home Carr shared with Ristrim in downtown Morgan Hill, following a lengthy verbal argument Thanksgiving weekend. Ristrim told police just before Carr was arrested the night of Nov. 25, that Carr had broken her glasses and pulled her hair during the argument. Carr told police any contact he made with Ristrim was accidental.
Ristrim’s sister, who had been on the phone with Ristrim during the argument, called local police that evening to report the alleged battery, according to police reports.
Ristrim, who now lives in San Ramon, appeared at the Aug. 20 trial. She sat next to Carr, as she has at recent hearings in the case, and the two walked out of the courtroom together following the trial.
During her testimony Aug. 20, Ristrim refused to answer most questions when she took the witness stand in response to a subpoena that had required her to appear. She sat with her attorney Wesley Schroeder by her side, repeating “no answer” each time Deputy D.A. Murat Ozgur asked her a question about her former residence and the domestic violence allegations against Carr.
Ristrim only answered questions asking her for her name and the city where she lives.
The judge, at the request of Ozgur, verbally ordered Ristrim to answer the prosecutor’s questions. Ozgur again asked Ristrim the same list of questions, but she again declined to answer.
Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Duong then told Ristrim she would be held in contempt of court if she refused to answer Ozgur’s questions, and she still refused.
The judge held Ristrim in contempt for disobeying the court’s order to answer the prosecutor’s questions. Duong ordered her to attend classes for domestic violence victims.
California Civil Procedure code states that the court cannot detain or imprison a victim of domestic violence for contempt. Instead, the court “may refer the victim for consultation with a domestic violence counselor,” according to the state code, section 1219.
Schroeder said during the trial that he advised Ristrim not to answer any questions during her testimony, based on “extensive discussions” in which she told him she did not want to testify.
After Ristrim repeatedly refused to testify about the November incident, Ozgur verbally moved to dismiss the charge of domestic battery against Carr. Ozgur acknowledged that the court’s options to compel Ristrim to testify are “limited.”
Duong declared the case against Carr dismissed, due to “insufficiency of evidence, based on the complaining witness’ refusal to testify.”
The judge also terminated a peaceful contact order against Carr, regulating the type of contact he could have with Ristrim after he was charged with the misdemeanor. The judge issued that order in February.
Bathija said after the trial that prosecutors had issued subpoenas ordering multiple witnesses to testify, including Morgan Hill Police officers who responded to and investigated the November incident. However, without Ristrim’s testimony, the D.A.’s office couldn’t make the case that Carr committed the crime of domestic battery.
In 2015, Carr pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery. That conviction was related to a March 2015 incident, also involving Ristrim, at the couple’s previous home in Morgan Hill. Carr completed a 16-week counseling program as his sentence for the 2015 conviction.
Carr has also denied acting violently in that incident, and said he pleaded no contest to avoid prolonged court proceedings.
Outside the courtroom after the Aug. 20 trial, Carr said he and Ristrim have supported each other throughout the court proceedings related to the November 2017 incident.
“From the beginning we have asked for patience and privacy for Barbara and I,” Carr said. “We’re trying to move on now and get this behind us.”
Carr’s attorney, Stuart Kirchick, added that Carr is glad the case is over with so that he can continue to “serve the people of Morgan Hill.”
Carr is currently in his fifth term as a Morgan Hill councilmember.