The XX Factor

Shellie Zimmerman Won’t Press Charges Against Her Husband. Alleged Domestic Violence Victims Often Don’t.

Shellie Zimmerman stood by her husband during his trial.

Pool photo by Joe Burbank/Getty Images

The Internet lit up Monday as word spread that George Zimmerman was in trouble with the law again. Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie Zimmerman, who has filed for divorce, called 911 after an altercation with Zimmerman at her parents’ house. Despite Shellie Zimmerman’s claim to the 911 operator that she feared for her safety from an angry George Zimmerman, who, she said, had punched her father and was threatening the family, she is not going to press charges. If you find that surprising, you shouldn’t. The sad fact of the matter is that in most domestic violence cases, the alleged victim refuses to press charges and resists testifying.

Statistics on victim recantation vary from district to district, but experts agree that it’s an extremely common problem, reaching as high as 90 percent of cases in places like Queens, N.Y. It’s long been assumed that the major reason victims recant is out of fear, especially the fear of the abuser retaliating. But a 2011 study out of Ohio State University suggests another reason: sympathy for the abuser. Researchers found by listening to recorded phone calls between men arrested for domestic violence and their victims that the abusers generally started off by getting the victim to question her own version of the story, insisting she remembered the whole thing incorrectly or that she’s making mountains out of molehills. Once softened, he then starts to lean on her sympathy and concern for him. Often, by the end, the abuser has convinced the victim that they are a single unit, a couple standing against a vicious system that’s trying to take him away from her. 

We can’t know why Shellie Zimmerman is refusing to press charges right now, but her story is an important reminder that things are very rarely simple for women struggling in toxic relationships. When Zimmerman pleaded guilty to perjury for lying about the couple’s assets, her lawyer explained the situation by saying, “She didn’t know what was going on. So, she stood by her man, like Tammy Wynette says.” The OSU study found that abusive men used similar sentiments about family unity to persuade their victims to recant. As the lead researcher noted, abusers would often appeal to the victims by explaining “how much he misses her and their children,” and this was often the breaking point where the victim would agree to recant. 

Even though the state of Florida can technically prosecute without a victim’s cooperation, the lack of evidence and the unwillingness of both Zimmerman and her father to press charges makes doing so nearly impossible. As the local police chief told the Orlando Sentinel, “We have no victim, no crime.”