May-June 2011

Responding immediately to family violence

Inspired by El Paso’s model domestic violence program, prosecutors in Bee County adapted it for their rural jurisdiction. Here’s how.

Martha Warner

District Attorney in Bee, Live Oak, and McMullen Counties

“Women are worth the time.” This was a recent headline in our local biweekly newspaper, The Bee Picayne, after a jury convicted a Pistolero gang member for brutalizing at least four young women he had been dating over several years. That defendant is now appealing two cases with stacked sentences totaling 70 years in prison, thanks to our new Violence Against Woman Grant Program and a very persistent assistant district attorney named James Sales who was hired under my border prosecution grant, both of which were obtained from Governor Rick Perry’s office. This infusion of money has enabled us to form a new family violence program, which is modeled after one in El Paso.

Inspiration from El Paso

I heard El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza speak at the Elected Prosecutor Conference in Fort Worth two years ago about a very successful domestic violence program he had implemented in his office. His enthusiasm and passion for prosecuting family violence (FV) cases, which destroy entire families and create cycles of continuing violence, was contagious.

    Under the El Paso program, there is an immediate response to an assault within the family by prosecutoral teams, which include victim coordinators and investigators who either respond at the scene or meet with the victim the next day. The victim coordinators develop a personal relationship with the victim by attempting to get them the help they may immediately need to feel safe, while the investigators take more photos and get good statements and the names of potential witnesses. They also gather all of the local officers’ offense reports and review all of the 911 calls pertaining to the case. Each week Mr. Esparza meets with the prosecution team (specially assigned assistant district attorneys, investigators, and victim coordinators) and personally staffs each case. Delays are eliminated and the cases are dealt with very swiftly.

    I knew immediately that the people in my rural South Texas communities of Bee, Live Oak, and McMullen Counties could be helped by the program Mr. Esparza outlined. However, like most rural prosecutors, we are trying to fight crime in miserably underfunded offices in districts where commissioners are desperately trying to balance budgets. Just to offer some background on my jurisdiction, Beeville, which is the county seat for Bee County and the largest town (at a population of 17,000) in the three counties, is home to the maximum security McConnell and Garza East and West Units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). These prison units may have saved the town from dying on the vine when our naval base was closed, but they have also increased the gang activity as members and recruits of the Mexican Mafia, Hermanadad de Pistoleros Latinos, Texas Syndicate, and Raza Unida attempt to control the drug and human trafficking in and around Beeville. Live Oak County has two main towns, George West and Three Rivers; they have been booming with transient oil field workers (the Eagle Ford Shale sweeps through South Texas). Tiden, which is the county seat of McMullen, shares all of the drug trafficking problems but few gang crimes due to its small size.

    Before I qualified for the Border Prosecution Unit (BPU) grant, my office consisted of me and my only assistant, Deborah Branch, with three very hard-working support staff. There are also many demands on our underpaid and understaffed law enforcement officers due to the human, drug, and gang trafficking on the many highways feeding up from the Mexican border. Although this new FV program sounded wonderful, it was not economically feasible for my small office at the time.

Grant funds to the rescue

Within a month of that conference, TDCAA’s newly hired Victim Services Director, Suzanne McDaniel, notified district attorneys across the state about stimulus money that was immediately available through Governor Perry’s office under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). And thanks to a lecture on grant writing by Bexar County Assistant Criminal District Attorney Katrina Daniels at the same Elected Conference at which Mr. Esparza spoke, and my incredibly bright administrative assistant Terri Hall, we applied for and were awarded a grant for $252,000 to hire an assistant prosecutor, an investigator, and a victim coordinator for our VAWA program. It would be a miniature version of what El Paso had implemented.

    Historically there has always been a delay in getting these cases to my office which, until taking on this task, meant prosecuting only felonies. Many of our overworked officers had become hardened toward the victims who always cry wolf but then cry foul as they file nonprosecution affidavits within a week of the incident, claiming they made up the whole story, some even going so far as to say their bruises were self-inflicted. Other young officers were simply unprepared for the documentation that such a case requires.

    My biggest concern was to find a good, aggressive prosecutor with excellent organizational skills. With the grant funds, I immediately hired Juan Garcia, a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin and Texas Tech Law School. He had prosecuted in Hidalgo County and speaks fluent Spanish. He was particularly excited about the challenge of creating a brand new program and has done a remarkable job.

    I already had the perfect investigator in mind for this job: Dan Caddell has been in law enforcement for over 30 years. He is a sexual assault-family violence investigator and is training our officers. Over the last 13 years Dan and I have tried too many aggravated sexual assault cases to remember. He knows how to get the coorborating evidence that a prosecutor needs to make a potential losing case a winner. The only concern I had was getting him to move the misdemeanor cases quickly to Juan for informations within a week or two and the felonies for the next grand jury, even though the cases may not have met his standards of perfection. Again, the whole concept is to stop the long delays and get the victimized families the help they need quickly.

    Our VAWA victim assistant coordinator, Joann Escobar, had worked with the adult probation office for eight years and has enthusiastically assisted many women. She works tirelessly, learning what resources are available for each individual case and keeping up with all of the paperwork including discovery and plea papers.

How it works in Bee County

Dan and Joann share an office with all of the files while Juan has an adjoining office. They gather offense reports, photos, and 911 calls every morning, then spend the rest of the morning making contact with the victims. If protective orders (POs) are needed, we refer those to our other victim coordinator, Christina Segovia, who works for the county attorney, Mike Knight. She covers all of the cases involving children and other victims of violent crime that are not considered family violence under our laws. Mr. Knight appointed me, Juan, and my first assistant, Deborah Branch, as assistant county attorneys to cover the misdemeanor family violence cases filed in Bee County.

    We first set up separate dockets for all of the misdemeanor FV cases. That kept us from getting involved in the other misdemeanor dockets, which tend to be rather large. Mirella Davis, our county clerk, and her assistant, Mary Fritz, were very helpful and excited about the prospect of getting additional court costs on cases that historically end with no witness and thus a dismissal. Our county judge, David Silvas, was willing to add two more hearings and a jury trial to the schedule each month because of his concerns for the victimized families and children.

    Domestic violence is often viewed as a losing battle for prosecutors. Our star witness is traumatized, afraid, and almost always reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement. As a result, investigations and prosecutions tend to go through the motions to the inevitable dismissal. Pursuing charges seems to be an ineffective allocation of a district attorney’s limited resources. This program has changed that perception!

    Establishing a respectful rapport with the victim supported by immediate documentation and collection of evidence enhances the quality of our cases exponentially. I had already started issuing grand jury subpoenas to victims who have filed nonprosecution affidavits in felony cases. In almost all of those cases I have been able to convince the victim to go forward with her truthful testimony after indictment.

    Since our program began in August of last year, we have investigated 238 FV cases; 140 were misdemeanors and 98 felonies. About 85 percent of the victims do not want the State to file charges; however, we normally go forward even with the nonprosecution affidavit in our file. Our grand jury has no-billed 12 felonies, and three felonies were dismissed because our witnesses had moved. Thirty-four felony cases have been indicted and disposed of, and there are presently 49 pending investigation. Many of the misdemeanors are probated and some are offered pretrial supervision; however, a sizeable number of the defendants facing felony charges are looking at lengthy prison sentences because of the severity of the abuse.

These women are worth it.

When a felony panel of 70-plus jurors was asked if the State should drop charges in a family violence case just because the victim had filed a non-prosecution affidavit, not one person raised a hand! I truly believe Texans feel victimized women are worth the time it takes to thoroughly investigate their cases and take them to trial. In several instances, I have seen heroes—including some children of the perpetrator—step into a volatile, dangerous FV situation just to protect those women. We hope to do that too, just on the back end. Our new FV program is wonderful, and I hope we can continue it.