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Judge faces backlash after contempt finding against witness

LEESBURG (AP) Virginia resident Katie Orndoff was in court to testify at the domestic assault trial of her boyfriend, who was accused of punching her in the face last year. Her reaction when she found out she was the one who’d be going to jail was shock.

“Me? What? Oh my God! I didn’t even do anything!” she exclaimed before bailiffs took her to jail for a 10-day contempt-of-court sentence.

The judge in the case, Loudoun County Circuit Judge James Fisher, found Orndorff in contempt after judging her to be intoxicated. He stopped the trial and questioned Orndoff, who admitted to smoking marijuana earlier in the day.

He then found her in contempt of court, sentenced her to 10 days in jail, and declared a mistrial in the case against her alleged attacker, James Phillips.

Orndoff’s attorney, Thomas Plofchan, said she spent more than two days in jail before she could be bonded out to appeal the remainder of her sentence. Most of that time she was in the jail naked with nothing but a blanket because the jail “inexplicably” deemed her a suicide risk, Plofchan said. The judge ordered her to submit to blood and urine tests against her will.

The contempt finding has prompted a backlash from the prosecutor, legislators, and advocates who say Fisher’s harsh treatment of a domestic-assault victim will deter other victims from coming forward.

“Katie was abused by her boyfriend, and she was abused again by the court system,” Plofchan said.

Fisher, who before his judicial appointment was the elected commonwealth’s attorney in neighboring Fauquier County, declined comment through the court clerk’s office, citing judicial obligations to avoid comment on ongoing litigation.

But he has made clear he stands by his decision. He canceled a hearing Sept. 23 on motions to vacate his contempt finding, saying the arguments that he should reverse himself were without merit. He took note of arguments that Orndoff should not be subject to punishment because smoking marijuana is now legal in Virginia, but he said it’s irrelevant because testifying in court while intoxicated is illegal, even if the intoxicant itself is legal.

He stated in a separate order that urine tests of Orndoff after she testified Sept. 7 found she had taken methamphetamines and marijuana.

Plofchan strongly disputed that the tests show his client was intoxicated, and suggested Fisher was cherry-picking preliminary findings and putting them out to the public prematurely to try to bolster his credibility.

“There is no evidence of methamphetamines intoxication,” he said.

Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj said on Sept. 23 that neither prosecutors nor police who observed Orndoff when she testified Sept. 7 found her to be intoxicated, Instead, she was nervous about appearing in court, and the outcome of the trial.

She said that if Fisher had concerns about Orndoff’s sobriety, he should have stopped the proceedings and ensured that Orndoff was informed of her rights before asking her potentially incriminating questions. Instead, she had no access to a lawyer and was not advised of her rights.

Biberaj said she wants to retry Phillips, but Orndoff has indicated she is reluctant to go through it all again.

“Without being overdramatic, he has gutted our case,” Biberaj said of the judge. She noted that domestic violence cases are hard enough to prosecute as it is. She said 70 percent of the domestic violence cases in the county were dropped or dismissed in the last three years because victims refused to go forward or because judges viewed testimony as a “he-said, she-said” situation that fell short of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Lisa Sales, an activist and sexual assault survivor, who organized a protest on Sept. 23 outside the county courthouse, said she believes Fisher’s conduct should be reviewed by a judicial inquiry board.

“We should be praising victims when they come forward, not condemning them,” she said.

Orndoff, in a written statement, said, the judge “has sent me a clear message. … I will never feel safe reporting abuse again because doing so does not protect me.”

-MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press

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