Awakening to the scourge of family violence

Staley Heatly

District Attorney in Wilbarger, Hardeman, and Foard Counties

I am a staunch advocate in the fight against family violence, but I haven’t always been. While I currently speak and train on family violence across the state and country, I haven’t always taken it very seriously. While I currently scrap, fight, and claw to protect victims’ rights and to hold batterers accountable, I used to let batterers walk away scot-free. For my first few years as a prosecutor, I knew nothing about the reality of family violence in our society.
    Sometimes it takes a shocking event to make us aware of the reality that surrounds us. It is easy to go through each day, absorbed in our lives, ignorant of the suffering that goes on just around the corner. But every once in a while, something happens that brings reality to our doorstep. It is up to us to decide whether we acknowledge it or turn away from it.
    For me one of these “awakenings” occurred in 2009, but to get there, we have to start in 2006, when I first assumed the role of district attorney. When I came into office, there was a significant case backlog resulting from a several-month period when the office was vacant. (Mine is a solo office, so if there is no elected prosecutor then there is no prosecution.) Looking at this big backlog, I decided that I had to figure out how to prioritize my resources and efforts.
    Obviously, the most serious crimes (murder, sexual assault, etc.) took precedence over state jail felonies. We also quickly attended to the “squeaky wheel” cases where the victims were calling for updates and urging prosecution. These were often burglaries, thefts, or assaults between unrelated parties. Of the remaining cases, my investigators and I went through each one to make the threshold determination as to whether we had sufficient evidence to proceed with the case. We quickly developed a thick stack of cases in which the victims had filed an affidavit of non-prosecution. I thought this was curious. Why would a victim want to drop charges against a perpetrator?
      I asked one of the long-time employees what the office policy was on these family violence cases with an affidavit of non-prosecution. She told me that the position had usually been, “If they don’t care, why should we?” As I looked at this large backlog of cases before me, that reasoning sounded pretty solid. If those victims didn’t care, why should I? After all, I had plenty of cases where victims were demanding that something be done. Why would I waste my time on these cases when the victim doesn’t even care? It seemed like an easy choice.
    I dismissed those cases and I continued to reject or dismiss family violence cases that contained an affidavit of non-prosecution for the next two years.

When it all changed
In March 2009, Tommy Castro and his girlfriend, Kristina Earnest, moved to Vernon, along with two of Kristina’s children, Kati, 5, and J.W., 22 months. Less than four months later Kati’s limp body was brought to Wilbarger General Hospital covered in bruises from head to toe. There was nothing emergency room staff could do for the girl. Her veins had collapsed and her heart had stopped. She died on July 5, 2009.
    The autopsy results showed that Kati had died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen. When confronted with the autopsy results, Kristina Earnest confessed to having killed her own child. She was arrested and charged with capital murder. But that was not the end of the story. Eventually, our investigation led us to discover that Tommy Castro was the actual perpetrator of the crime.
    After being placed in jail and separated from Castro for three weeks, Earnest eventually told police that her confession was false. She said that Castro had threatened to kill her other children if she did not take the rap. She also told us how Castro had killed Kati. After beating her with a wooden board, Castro stepped twice with his full weight on the child’s abdomen, causing the transection of Kati’s duodenum. This matched information that we received from Shyla Frausto, Castro’s previous girlfriend. She described to us how just a year earlier an enraged Castro had beaten her 10-year-old son with a wooden board and stepped on him as punishment. Fortunately, Frausto’s son was big enough and strong enough to survive those brutal attacks.
    Both Earnest and Frausto described horrific beatings during their time with Castro. Both women said he started beating their children only when he didn’t get a sufficient reaction from beating them. The more we looked into Castro’s past, the more women we found. We discovered that Castro had been beating, abusing, and sexually assaulting his girlfriends since the early 1990s.1
    While Castro did have some prior misdemeanor convictions involving family violence, there were many instances in which the criminal justice system had failed to hold him accountable. As an example, in the mid-1990s in a large jurisdiction, Castro was caught in the act breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s house and attempting to assault her. The ex-girlfriend was hiding in the bathroom and Castro was trying to break down the door when police arrived. Despite Castro’s confession, the case was dismissed when the victim filed an affidavit of non-prosecution.
    As we examined Castro’s criminal history, it became obvious that we (as a criminal justice system) had failed on many occasions. It didn’t take deep thinking on my part to figure out why. Castro’s previous cases had been treated by police and prosecutors the same way I had been treating family violence cases in my jurisdiction for two years: with disdain. As I considered his history, I couldn’t help but wonder if Kati Earnest might still be alive if the criminal justice system had taken those previous cases seriously.
    As we got ready for trial, I knew that our greatest obstacle would be explaining to the jury why a mother would falsely confess to murdering her own child. Because I knew nothing about the dynamics of family violence, I knew that I would need an expert not only to educate the jury, but also to educate me about how abusive relationships work. My investigator, Jeff Case, found Dr. Judith Beechler in early 2010. A professor of counseling at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Dr. Beechler has worked with victims of family violence for over 20 years. Over the course of several meetings, she very patiently explained to me the dynamics of abusive relationships. The more I spoke with Dr. Beechler, the more I understood the behavior of survivors of family violence. Their actions are frequently a manifestation of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse. While their behavior may seem counterintuitive to some, it makes sense when viewed from the survivor’s perspective.
    Dr. Beechler’s testimony was critical in the Castro trial. The jury had the opportunity to hear from third-party witnesses who saw how Castro dominated Kristina and isolated her from friends and family. They also got to hear from Kristina and Shyla Frausto about the abuse that they suffered at Castro’s hands. That testimony, combined with Dr. Beechler’s explanation of the dynamics of abusive relationships, led the jury to conclude that Kristina’s confession was false, that she was a victim of abuse, and that Castro was the real killer of little Kati Earnest. After hearing from a half-dozen prior victims at the punishment phase, it took the jury only 30 minutes to sentence Castro to life in prison.

Waking up
The Castro case was a wake-up call for me. It woke me up to the reality of family violence in our society and in our criminal justice system. It showed me just how flawed my thinking had been, and it made me understand that if we let people like Castro get by with abuse, it will only get worse. The justice system had numerous opportunities to stop Castro, and each time we failed. Each time we allowed Castro to manipulate us through his victims. He was winning, and the rest of us, especially his victims, were losing.
    Of course, the vast majority of batterers are not Tommy Castro—they probably won’t kill anyone. But they leave behind a trail of emotionally bruised and battered survivors and children who carry the scars of abuse and pass them on to the next generation. The impact of family violence on victims is powerful. Its impact on our society is tremendous. Violence in the home leads to violence in society. Statistics show that men who commit family violence are much more likely to be violent toward their children. Boys who witness violence in the home are at least two times more likely than boys that grow up in homes without violence to become batterers themselves. Additionally, some statistics show that girls who witness family violence in the home are much more likely to be involved in abusive relationships as adults. This violent behavior is passed down from generation to generation. According to the latest statistics from the Texas Council on Family Violence, about one in three Texas women has suffered from intimate partner violence.

A change in policy
In the summer of 2010, we decided to implement a “no dismissal” policy in family violence cases. It did not take us long to figure out that such a policy was unworkable. One of the first cases we received after implementing the policy was a loser. It was poorly investigated, and even with a cooperative victim it would have been almost impossible to successfully prosecute.
    It was then that we realized that the initial investigation of a family violence crime is the most important stage of the case. If the victim has called 911, she has reached a point where she is in fear for her life and she is very likely to cooperate with police. A day later, when the fear has passed and only the bruises remain, she is more likely to listen to the batterer’s apologies and promises to be a better partner. This makes the response and initial investigation stage of the case the most critical part of a family violence case.
    My office worked with the local police chief, and he agreed to let us conduct a day-long training with his officers. The training went extremely well and had a particularly interesting start. A few minutes after my investigator and I started the program, a veteran police officer raised his hand to ask a question. He wanted to know if we were actually going to prosecute family violence cases. He said that officers never spent much time working on them in the past because they knew that nothing would ever happen after arrest. At this training we reached an agreement: If the officers would conduct a quality investigation, my office would perform a quality prosecution.
    Almost overnight we started receiving well-investigated cases that we could prosecute even with an uncooperative victim. (Of course it helps when you can train all 25 police officers in the department on the same day.) When our local police knew that we were going to make these difficult cases a priority, they made them a priority too.
    Aside from the basics of how to conduct the initial investigation, we also talked to the officers about the dynamics of family violence and the psychological effects on victims. We discussed the cycle of violence and power and control. We didn’t get into great detail, but it was important to discuss this issue because many of the officers had questions about counterintuitive victim behavior. They didn’t understand why she was back with the abuser the next day. They wanted to know why she wouldn’t give a written statement a week after the incident. These things frustrated some officers and frankly made them angry with the victims.
    I must admit that even after receiving extensive training on family violence I am still sometimes frustrated with victims. As prosecutors, our goal is to use the truth to see that justice is done. When a victim sits in your office and lies to you, it can make you angry. The worst thing we can do is lash out at a person who has already suffered enough. It is important for us to know that the behavior we see in front of us is the result of abuse. The victim has been manipulated by the abuser (both emotionally and physically) and the behavior we see is a manifestation of that manipulation. Understanding that makes it easier to deal with uncooperative victims.

Making it a priority
Combatting family violence has been a priority of my office since Kati’s death in 2009. It has also become a personal passion. I now speak and train on family violence across the country, and last year I toured Ecuador for two weeks speaking and training on family violence at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy and the Ecuadorian Interior Ministry. It is unfortunate that it took such a horrible case to open my eyes to the reality of family violence. I often wonder about those batterers to whom I gave a free pass during my first two years in office. How many other people have they hurt since then?
    In the first couple of years after the Castro case, we obtained some long sentences against repeat family violence perpetrators. Thanks to excellent investigations by local police and solid expert testimony from Dr. Beechler, it didn’t matter if the victim was cooperative or combative. We were getting good results. At some point, however, I started realizing that no matter how many times we locked these guys up, they would be right back out battering again when they were released. That is when I started getting information from the Texas Council of Family Violence on batterer intervention programs.
    Batterer intervention and prevention programs (called BIPPs) generally offer long-term group counseling sessions for abusers. The goal is to change batterers’ thought processes so they no longer view relationships as being based on power and control, but rather on equality and non-violence. With the help of friends and volunteers, Texoma Batterer Intervention and Prevention Program, Inc. opened its doors in Vernon in September 2013. It is the most rural BIPP in the state of Texas. We sent our facilitators to Duluth, Minnesota, for training and purchased a curriculum that is well-accepted in the field. Our BIPP offers a 27-week program with weekly group sessions that are two hours each. Attendees are ordered to the class as a probation condition or as part of a pretrial diversion agreement. The BIPP not only works to change the behavior of batterers, but it also hosts family violence awareness rallies and provides support for victims. It is changing lives and bringing about awareness in our community. Unfortunately, not all of those that are ordered to the class complete it, but those who do say that it has had a profound impact on their lives and relationships. At least for some, we are stopping the transmission of that violent behavior to the next generation.

Parting thoughts
My experience with the Castro case taught me that if we don’t make these cases a priority, the opportunity to hold these abusers accountable will slip away. It is too easy to let files with affidavits of non-prosecution linger. No one is calling and asking for updates. No one is pushing for prosecution. But what is the batterer doing as that case lingers? Chances are he is passing that abusive behavior on to another generation.
    Once we started prosecuting these cases with vigor, it got the attention of people in the community. We started getting long sentences for repeat batterers. Now abusers in my community know that if they get arrested for family violence, they are going to be held accountable. I have had relatives of uncooperative victims contact my office and say, “I saw in the paper that you will prosecute even when the victim doesn’t want to help. Are you going to prosecute the man that has been beating my daughter for years?” They are always so relieved when the answer is “yes.” i

Endnote

1 For a more thorough analysis of the Castro case, see “Unraveling a Web of Lies,” which appeared in The Texas Prosecutor journal’s September-October 2011 issue, available at www.tdcaa.com/journal/unraveling-web-lies.