Insight from three elected prosecutors on fighting domestic violence

Rene Peña

District Attorney in Atascosa, Frio, Karnes, La Salle, and Wilson Counties

In the last issue of this journal I got the chance to tell you a little about some work I have been fortunate to take part in with TDCAA and our state’s family violence coalition, the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV). (If you have a moment, take a look at the May-June edition of The Prosecutor  at www.tdcaa.com/journal/ next-jury-box, for more on the directions and recommendations we have worked on as a result of the project.) Called Next to the Jury Box, this project brings together these great statewide organizations and elected district and county attorneys from all over Texas to develop our philosophies and practices informed by victim safety and offender accountability.
    Through a series of summits aimed at both small and large jurisdictions and practical, CLE-eligible webinars, a leadership core of prosecutors steer the overall work. We have made some real progress in prioritizing family violence prosecution in our state.
    Frankly, I have been excited and gratified to participate in Next to the Jury Box. I knew that during my time as TDCAA President, I wanted to highlight a few priorities, and border security and family violence (two overlapping subjects) ranked high on my list. I have to say, though, that I have also wanted to use this position to shine a light on innovative and promising practices from all over the state, not just within my five-county jurisdiction.
    So with this motivation, I turned to three other prosecutors from different parts of Texas to help tell the Next to the Jury Box story. I purposefully turned to small and medium-size jurisdictions to offer a slightly different perspective than we might otherwise hear about. At the summit for elected prosecutors in small towns and rural jurisdictions, we learned that this segment of prosecutors certainly encounters challenges but also may have built-in advantages to holding offenders accountable and fostering safety for victims. I asked three of my colleagues (Jennifer Tharp, Criminal District Attorney in Comal County; James Stainton, County Attorney in Wise County; and Henry Garza, District Attorney in Bell County) to share a little about their jurisdictions and what they’ve learned and implemented from these summits.
    I expected solid pieces, but what I received were cutting-edge responses to how we handle family violence prosecution. Read on for more in their own words.

Jennifer Tharp
Criminal District Attorney in Comal County
Last fall, I was stumped when TDCAA Executive Director Rob Kepple asked a group of prosecutors, “What is your definition of success with regards to the state of domestic violence prosecution within your office?” We took turns stating what we felt success would be or what success for us had become. However, even after my turn to answer, the issue kept lingering in my mind. I’d like to say I have always prioritized domestic violence prosecution, starting as an assistant district attorney and now as the elected. However, do I truly consider my office “successful,” and what exactly does this mean to me?
    Over the next several months, I participated in TDCAA’s and TCFV’s Prosecutor Leadership Core and Summits, and the fire inside me was ignited. This was my opportunity to evaluate my office. I was learning from some of the most talented prosecutors about making a positive change. While I could probably write a book on all the things I learned, let me highlight my key takeaways.
    First, quit blaming your office’s actions or inactions on a lack of resources. All too often I attend conferences where I hear of great things accomplished in other counties, but I quickly think, “That could never happen in my area,” or “I don’t have enough [fill in the blank] to do that.” I have challenged myself to figure out what I can do with my resources, big or small. Moreover, my jurisdiction’s size has several advantages. Having only 15 attorneys, I can easily and quickly implement new changes and ensure they are carried out. Plus, I know most of the law enforcement officers on a first-name basis.
    Which brings me to my second point:  Have a conversation with law enforcement and your staff on what together you hope to accomplish on domestic violence cases. Recently I did just that. Together law enforcement and my office committed to take these cases more seriously and prioritize them. We hope to best serve victims and protect them from future harm but also protect our officers, as these calls are often volatile and dangerous for them.
    Third, don’t shy away from the difficult case—embrace the victim and evidence (or lack thereof). I have yet to meet a prosecutor who gets excited about giving 100 percent on a plain-vanilla assault case where the victim wants the police to butt out. What I learned best from Harris County is that our mindset for these cases is half the battle. Prosecutors and law enforcement should attack these cases with the assumption that the victim will recant. Changing my mindset to expect recantation from the get-go saves me from frustration when my victim actually does recant and forces me to better prepare my case for prosecution.
    One other change I implemented, inspired by El Paso and Brazos Counties, is to initiate contact with the victim quickly before she is pressured to drop charges. Our office now follows up with victims within 10 days of the arrest. This locks in her statement and allows us to assist with protective orders and referrals for services in our community. Additionally, we can get follow-up photos of the victim’s injuries, which is helpful to show aging of injuries. Currently, I am working toward getting my officers to take video statements from victims at the scene. Having seen other jurisdictions’ videos, I am convinced that they are priceless. Frankly, it’s the best documentation of the victim’s words and a visual collection of her demeanor.
    So if you have not asked yourself Rob’s difficult question about what success in domestic violence prosecution looks like for you, please do. And be ready to challenge yourself, your office, and your community.

James Stainton
County Attorney in Wise County
At TDCAA’s and TCFV’s recent rural prosecutor forum, the most common issues we identified related to our relationship with law enforcement. As we went around the room, I noticed that most of the attendees “wanted” something from their officers. The “want” list included statements by all victims and witnesses, preferably in front of a video camera, better reports, and more investigation into frequent abusers. Several prosecutors wanted officers to do something about those victims who continue to go back to their abusers. My question for all of us to consider was this: What are we doing to empower our officers and deputies to give us what we want?
    Although we continue to look for opportunities to improve on this, in Wise County we made use of Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 17.292, which covers a Magistrate’s Order for Emergency Protection (MOEP). First, I took the myriad forms used by the different agencies and updated them into one form that every agency now uses. Simple changes, like extra lines for the narrative and citing the statute sections in the order, made them easier for all parties (victims, officers, and judges) to complete. Second, I involved the Justices of the Peace and got their input on the new forms. After making changes and getting the forms in place, I started the process of getting the forms out and in use by officers. (Fortunately, David Walker, the Sheriff who covers my jurisdiction, and his deputies work very hard on domestic violence cases and have welcomed the new forms.) The final part of this process included empowering the officers to use the forms, even if the victim did not cooperate, and assuring them that there was not going to be any blowback on them if victims recanted.
    The benefits of updating the MOEP form and involving the judges and law enforcement have been very impressive. For victims, we give them more time away from their abuser and time to meet with our domestic violence advocates, a first step in preventing future abuse. As an unexpected benefit, our face-to-face contact with victims dramatically increased. As a policy, my JPs will not agree to drop a MOEP, and they direct all victims desiring such to my office. I personally meet with almost every victim who comes into the office wanting to drop a protective order, which gives me a chance to discuss her situation and, in too many cases, see her still-fresh bruises. (I am happy to share my new and improved form by the way—just contact my office.)
    Since I took office in 2009, I have taken the stance that I do not drop an MOEP for any reason. For many victims, it is almost a wave of relief when I tell them “no” because now the pressure is off them and on the prosecutor. We have taken away a little power from the abusers by letting them know that it is not the victim’s fault that the MOEP is still in place. Having more victims in our office earlier in the process also lets us direct them to our local domestic violence advocates, Wise Hope Shelter and Crisis Center. Having a group of advocates that work with victims and encourage them to get safe is a real blessing.
    I am very lucky to work in a county where the sheriff and local police chiefs all work very hard to prosecute those who think it is acceptable to abuse a spouse or family member. And as a small town, rural prosecutor in a small office—I’m the entire prosecutor staff in my office!—I appreciate getting the chance to talk about this issue at the statewide level with TDCAA and TCFV. I call on both of them to keep the emphasis going.

Henry Garza
District Attorney in Bell County
In my office, we have long understood family violence as a serious threat to our families and communities; my personal participation in Next to the Jury Box has supported our longstanding approach and yielded tangible results.
    First, a little about my jurisdiction: Bell County, with a population of approximately 300,000 people located on the IH-35 corridor between Waco and Austin, includes Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the world, and a Level One trauma center, Baylor Scott and White Health/Hospital. Several police agencies file misdemeanor family violence cases at the county attorney’s office and felonies at the district attorney’s office. My office handles the more serious offenses such as assault by strangulation, enhanced family violence, continuous violence against the family, aggravated assault, and murder.
    The presence of rural, growing communities and relatively large concentrations of people has affected how my office addresses family violence. With Next to the Jury Box, I have interacted with other prosecutors in discussing how best to succeed in these cases. Three aspects of my office’s response include community coordination, innovative law enforcement practices, and strategies to address victims and offenders in and leaving the military.
    Starting in earnest in 2009, when a social worker at Scott and White Hospital brought together several community stakeholders, we founded the Central Texas Family Violence Task Force (CTFVTF). This task force created a network of allied partners and provides community-wide training. Victim advocates, Families in Crisis [a family violence center] staff, licensed professional counselors, social workers, forensic nurses, probation officers, police officers, Battering Intervention and Prevention Program (BIPP) facilitators, non-profit organizations (including Aware Central Texas, the Children’s Advocacy Center and Starry Counseling), and a variety of people from Fort Hood, including prosecutors and representatives from the Army’s Family Advocacy Program and Social Work Departments all attend meetings) all attend meetings. The task force has also increased communication between civilian and military jurisdictions, especially when military members are accused of committing family violence outside of military installations. CTFVTF recognized the importance of engaging the entire military community in supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable.
    Second, I have seen increased success as a result of innovative law enforcement approaches, such as the Harker Heights Healthy Homes Program initiated by Police Chief Mike Gentry. The Harker Heights Police Department has employed a licensed social worker, Kerry Anne Frazier, since 2012 who focuses on outreach to homes where police have been called out previously, either by neighbors or family members, but where no crime has yet occurred. This social worker meets with families to offer services aimed at addressing toxic cycles prior to actual crimes occurring; counseling, legal aid, involvement with landlords, and referrals to family violence shelters and resource centers represent only a few of the voluntary options she provides. Ms. Frazier handles more than 350 referred cases a year, and 60 percent involve some kind of family violence.
    And finally, we focus on responsible approaches to family violence by and against the large military community in Bell County. For instance, when family violence perpetrators go on community supervision, they must successfully complete a Battering Intervention and Prevention Program (BIPP), as opposed to anger management. Moreover, we handle family violence cases involving active-duty soldiers within well-established relationships between Fort Hood and Bell County prosecutors. For instance, a standing Memorandum of Understanding between our office and the Fort Hood Chief of Military Justice establishes protocols for jurisdiction in cases involving soldiers. The Bell County Attorney’s Office hosts a yearly class where trial counsel from Fort Hood learn how to access the Bell County database for information on soldiers accused of family violence (and other offenses) and to meet Bell County prosecutors.
    When I think about our continued drive to work toward safety for victims and accountability for offenders, I am reminded of our witness waiting room. This special place includes a wall full of pictures entitled “The Lives that Have Touched Our Hearts”—it displays photos of crime victims in our community, many of whom have lost their lives because of family violence. It reminds us of the lives we have touched in cases we have prosecuted. It is also a hard reality that many times, these family assaults can escalate into greater injuries and even death. These victims are worth fighting for.