Nova Scotia

'I just wanted to take some of my own power back': Dartmouth woman testifies in domestic violence case

Despite being scared of her ex, Serrece Winter is relieved to have testified against him. She says steps taken to ensure she felt safe were helpful, and she hopes other victims of domestic violence feel empowered as she now feels.

Serrece Winter was jailed after she feared testifying against her ex. This time things went differently

Serrece Winter said she was scared yet relieved to testify against her ex in an incident one year ago. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

The night before Serrece Winter was scheduled to testify against her ex-partner, she had a nightmare that she was being strangled at the courthouse, and when police responded to the assault, they shot her instead.

She woke up from the dream, and vomited.

But despite still being terrified of her ex, the domestic violence complainant showed up in provincial court in Dartmouth, N.S., on Monday to testify against him.

Gerald Hape, 61, is accused of choking, uttering threats, and breaching court orders on Dec. 10, 2019. 

"It was really important to show him that he didn't have any more power over me at all," Winter, 45, said in an interview near her apartment in north-end Dartmouth.

"I just wanted to take some of my own power back. For a year now he's had control over my life through the court system," she said.

Winter sat behind this screen so she wouldn't have to look at her ex, though he could still see her. (Robert Short/CBC)

Winter has suffered a series of traumatic domestic events, and was further traumatized following actions taken by the Public Prosecution Service and Halifax Regional Police.

On Nov. 20, 2019, a Crown attorney sought her arrest after she failed to show up in court to testify against Hape. She was so afraid of her ex that she passed out drunk, and the 14 charges against him were eventually dismissed.

Halifax Regional Police took her to the police station as the courthouse was closing. 

In the booking area, she protested to officers that "they put the victim in jail." But that appeared to fall on deaf ears, and Winter self-harmed in a jail cell.

Officers dragged her out moments later and strapped her into a restraint chair while covering her mouth with their hands.

Police ended up charging her with assaulting a peace officer. The charge was dropped last month when a Crown attorney announced a prosecution was not in the public interest. 

Seven officers were on hand to subdue Winter, two of them covered her mouth while strapping her to a restraint chair. (Halifax Regional Police video/Screen capture)

She went public last month about how she was treated, which drew widespread outrage at authorities and sympathy for her.

This time, Winter showed up in court in large part because Hape is now under a peace bond to stay away from her.

Winter also credits a plan created with a Crown attorney to ensure her safety and reduce the possibility of intimidation in the courtroom.

Taxi rides were provided to get her to court and back home.

She was kept in a separate area of the courthouse with two victim-support workers on hand to assist her. 

And when she was brought into the courtroom, her ex was forced to leave the room until she was seated in a witness box surrounded by a screen that blocked him from her view.

Gerald Hape is accused of choking and uttering threats against Winter. (CBC)

Still, the mere sound of Hape's voice was triggering.

"It was very unsettling when I heard his voice. I ended up crying, I was quite upset," said Winter.

She heard him as he agreed to plead guilty to breaking three court conditions — failing to keep the peace, having contact with Winter, and possessing or consuming alcohol or drugs.

He will be sentenced on those offences when the trial on charges of choking and uttering threats continues in March.

Sarah Lane, the Crown attorney handling the file, twice met with Winter to prepare for the trial. 

"She was very brave in coming here, and I hope that we were able to help her feel supported," said Lane.

The Crown attorney said she was unable to comment on the decision by another Crown attorney to have Winter arrested last year.

Sarah Lane is a Crown attorney in the Dartmouth, N.S. office of the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

But intimate partner violence cases are considered a priority, she said. Prosecutors follow a pro-charge, pro-arrest, pro-prosecution directive which means "we bring them to a conclusion."

Often the only witness to the allegation is the victim, so their testimony is crucial. 

Winter said she left the Crown attorney with a message: that victims should feel protected rather than threatened with punishment.

Though Winter remains scared of her ex, she's relieved that she took the stand.

She hopes this new chapter in her story — finding the courage to testify — empowers victims of violence who are compelled to take the stand even though a guilty verdict is not assured.

"It's still worth it just to show him that he can't, he doesn't — you can't control other people, you're not their boss."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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