May-June 2014

Next to the jury box

Rene Peña

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

As a prosecutor, I think about my role in the courtroom and the physical position I have occupied while seeking justice. I have always thought of our table situated next to the jury box as a position of honor, a place close to the deciders of fact, peers from all walks of life who serve on our juries. And so as it happens, this phrase “next to the jury box” has taken on a related significance with my involvement in a TDCAA and Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV)-led initiative called, you guessed it, Next to the Jury Box. More on that important effort in a moment.
    During this next year, I look forward to highlighting a few key aspects of prosecution that I have heard prosecutors and others prioritize. In the last two issues, I discussed realities facing border prosecutors and steps at the state and local levels we have all taken to address these challenges.
    In this issue I raise prosecution of family violence as a topic worthy of further conversation, effort, and innovation. I further note a few of the overlaps between family violence and the continued presence and ramifications of organized criminal activities related to drug trafficking in our communities.
    In March 2013, I participated with many of my colleagues in a summit on family violence that served as the culmination of several months’ coordination and meetings on the topic. The summit brought together elected district and county attorneys and other prosecutors in leadership from across the state to share their experiences, challenges, and innovations in prosecuting family violence. At the summit, we discussed various aspects of family violence including recent legislative changes, Battering Intervention Prevention Programs (BIPP), family violence response to active and military veterans and their intimate partner victims, prevalence of family violence in Texas, and family violence fatalities. In short, the Next to the Jury Box Summit represented a chance for us to learn new information and sound off on the challenges and opportunities inherent in this area of our responsibility, with an eye toward informing better policymaking at the local and state levels.
    TDCAA and TCFV partnered again this year with a slightly adjusted focus. I have the honor of participating in a smaller group of my colleagues called the Leadership Core, which helps lead the overall planning and course of Next to the Jury Box. (A special thanks to Rob Kepple for his leadership in the effort.) It was at our first meeting in January that we shared an epiphany when we heard more about TCFV’s publication, the 2012 Honoring Texas Victims Report and other vital statistics related to family violence.
    According to that report, in 2012, 114 women were killed by their intimate partners in Texas. From Potter to Harris, from El Paso to Cameron, from Dallas to Wichita Counties, communities across our state encountered family violence fatalities. Harris led all counties with 30 deaths, followed by Dallas (9) and Tarrant (6); counties with smaller populations like Lubbock also experienced greater per capita rates of death than larger population centers, bringing home the idea that we must take murders in both contexts seriously. Some 37 of the 114 women killed were aged between 30 and 39; three young women under 19 years old and 9 women 60 years and older died. Sixty percent of fatalities involved firearms. An additional 15 family members, friends, and others—including 5 children—were killed during the same criminal episode; 61 additional people witnessed these horrific acts, 44 of them children. As compared to the previous year, Texas experienced an increase in family violence murders of women by their intimate partners: 114 in 2012 and 102 in 2011. For the full report as well as reports from the last 20 years, head to www
    Overall, rather than thinking of these fatalities as inevitable and seemingly random in nature, we began to see that family violence fatalities are identifiable, knowable, and preventable.
    And although family violence fatalities cause all of us to take pause, we must also consider family violence that includes actions short of murder. We know for instance that over 70,000 victims sought services in our state’s family violence shelters and centers in 2013. Around 13,000 children and 11,000 adults received shelter from intimate partner violence in that same year. And those life-saving centers received more than 180,000 hotline calls.1 On one day alone in 2013, Texas programs served 5,923 adults and children but could not meet 1,311 requests for services.2
    More broadly, over 37 percent of Texas women have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime, translating to over 3 million women currently living in our state. Some 22 percent of women victimized in this way became pregnant as a result of forced sex. Moreover, some 1 million Texans currently experience abuse within their relationship, and over 10 million people in Texas know someone who has been in an abusive relationship. In large part due to these realities, over 97 percent of those surveyed agreed that victims of family violence should have access to support services. Over 86 percent of Texans responding to a survey gauge access to services as important or very important. Almost 70 percent of those surveyed said they would be more likely to vote for political candidates who help victims of family violence.3
    And according to TCFV’s Access to Safety, Justice, and Opportunity: A Blueprint for Domestic Violence Intervention in Texas, when comparing the availability of family violence services, Uniform Crime Report data, the U.S. Census, and other metrics, living in a border county represents a significant predictor of a person’s need for family violence services. Additional predictors of need include lack of education and whether a person is a female age 20 to 24.4 This makes sense from what we know about the ways in which immigrant women experience greater danger from batterers who may also traffic illegal drugs and even people. Hispanic women along the border can experience isolation from family and friends and too often fear contacting authorities or accessing shelter and other resources because their batterers implicitly or directly threaten them with physical and other kinds of harm.
    In short, I know as the elected prosecutor for the 81st Judicial District that family violence represents a problem for victims and families that live in this region, but knowing this information helps me understand and prioritize family violence prosecution. Reading the narratives in Honoring Texas Victims further helps me to contextualize these murders. And this data helps me provide leadership necessary at the local and state level to begin to interrupt generational cycles of violence and turn the tide when it comes to family violence. As prosecutors, I believe we have a particular duty and ability to help family violence centers, law enforcement, the judiciary, and others forge community-based and statewide solutions.
    We must continue to forge new, outside-the-box solutions that make these key connections. We should look to efforts all over the state, such as the leadership at the local and statewide level that our colleague, new TCFV Board Member, and elected District Attorney in El Paso County, Jaime Esparza, has taken on during the last 10 years; his and others’ innovative strategies help chart our path forward.
    Armed with this knowledge regarding prevalence and best practices, we can work on the Next to the Jury Box project and come to terms with some key realities and practices that will foster successful outcomes for victims of family violence. Big picture-wise, consider that family violence response and prosecution calls for the below three main areas of focus:

Safety for victims and accountability for offenders. Plainly stated, if we cannot significantly contribute to the long-term safety of the victims for whom we fight in court, we as prosecutors miss the mark. Obviously we strongly hold on to the need for accountability for batterers as we do for all of those who commit crimes in our districts. But it is time for us to come together to resolve the question of what outcomes make the best sense in service of safety for victims and accountability for offenders.

Community leadership against family violence. As elected officials and those who work for them, prosecutors are community leaders against family violence, not just in the courtroom. This calls for prioritization of family violence prosecution from the top down, setting the tone within the office and in other areas such as victim services, law enforcement, schools, and in the popular discourse. As is the case for other areas of prosecution, our good intentions without support do not materialize in truly taking family violence seriously.

Regular and systemic approaches to evidenced-based prosecution. We have also begun to forge practical solutions to family violence prosecution. These practices include:
•    prioritizing filing and obtaining protective orders for victims;
•    obtaining pleas with a finding of family violence (a practice with broad implications regarding later enhancement, divorce and custody proceedings, and firearm prohibitions);
•    determining whether the prosecution can move forward without the victim’s participation;
•    setting up a system for evidence collection that includes regular and quick collection of witness statements, photos, 911 recordings, video, medical records, and other evidence that may allow prosecution to proceed one way or the other; and
•    realizing that quick intake and adjudication foster greater peace of mind for victims and increase the likelihood of continued participation.
     And so I have committed this year to increasing my knowledge and acumen when it comes to family violence prosecution. I further commit to working with you to gather your continued feedback and points of view with the intent of creating practical solutions that we can all successfully implement.
    Ah yes, that Next to the Jury Box Project. Starting in January, the Leadership Core has met and will continue to meet to learn more about key aspects of family violence prosecution and to plan two additional summits. The first occurred February 27 and 28 in Austin; we focused on small town and rural prosecution, inviting one-person (or near to it) offices to come together to communicate their challenges and successes. The second summit, April 10 and 11 in the Dallas area, included elected prosecutors from mid-size to large jurisdictions. (See photos from both, below.)Look for more on this in the coming weeks as well as recorded webinars prosecutors can access for CLE.
    In the end these efforts come down to Rosa, Dyrika, Evangeline, April, Lashonda, Shelia, Haroldine, the other 107 women killed in 2012, the additional 2,506 women killed by their male intimate partner since 1990, and the more than 70,000 Texans who seek family violence services every year. Please consider joining TDCAA and TCFV as we engage in approaches that positively impact the cyclical dysfunction that family violence causes so that we are cognizant of every Texan’s right to security and safety in our communities.


1 These figures supplied by the Texas Health and Human Services Family Violence Program.
2 As reported in the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s 2013 Annual National Program Study, available at
3 See Statewide Prevalence of Domestic Violence in Texas, The University of Texas at Austin Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (2011) ( accessed March, 10, 2014).
4 For the full analysis and an executive summary of the Access to Safety, Justice, and Opportunity, go to