Texas Prosecutor, January-February 2019

Stop, collaborate and listen

I first want to say thank you to the members of TDCAA for the privilege to serve as your new TDCAA President. When I started my prosecutorial career in 2002, I never thought that I would be in the position of writing an article about my thoughts on prosecution, but I guess God had other plans. TDCAA has been a resource to my office in countless ways, from the relationships built, to the case summaries and user forums, and everything in between.
    I feel it’s only right for me to give back in my own unique way by talking about something near and dear to my heart: prosecuting domestic violence.
    In March of 2009, I received a call from one of my good friends in the office, Brian Baker (who is now my first assistant). He had been asked by College Station Police Department to come to the scene of a double homicide where a young college student had been murdered in her home by her ex-boyfriend. Her older brother, who lived with her, had also died trying to save his sister’s life.
    Less than a month later, my daughter Erin was born, and about 24 hours after that, I first met the parents of the murdered siblings. I remember the meeting vividly because I had experienced one of the happiest moments in my life just a day earlier—and then I found myself staring at a mother and a father at the lowest point in their lives. It was a helpless feeling to know there was nothing I could do to take away their pain. I remember their faces that day. I remember their tears.
    During the next year, I got to know the family well. We even traveled to their home and spent a couple of days going through old photos, talking to family and friends, and seeing how the siblings grew up. During the trial, I was talking with the mother about her testimony right before the last day of punishment. I asked her to speak from her heart about the pain and heartache she was experiencing. I told her that I knew how hard it would be and I apologized for bringing up these painful memories. She looked at me with tears welling up in her eyes and said, “Don’t worry. It comes back every morning.” Parents should never bury their children. I had heard that saying before, but on that day, I caught a glimpse as to why.
    I have never forgotten that family. I prosecuted that case in 2010. When I became the elected district attorney in 2013, we decided to make domestic violence a priority in our office, primarily because of my experience with that case. I wanted to do everything I could to ensure no other family has to go through that experience in my county. What I later learned was that there were many families around the country who experienced the devastating effects of domestic violence.
    Nationwide, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. That is more than 10 million victims per year. One in three women have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. In strictly economic terms, the cost of domestic violence exceeds $8.3 billion per year, and victims lose a total of eight million days of paid work per year.
    Statewide, the numbers are also staggering. According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, 136 women were killed by their male partner in 2017, and 211 children lost a parent due to domestic violence. Seventy percent of perpetrators killed their partners in their own home. In the Brazos County District Attorney’s Office, 66 percent of our violent crime is related to domestic violence. These statistics were eye-opening to me in a community that has been voted one of the best places to live in the state of Texas.
    It was with this understanding of domestic violence at a national, statewide, and local level that we began to aggressively prosecute domestic violence offenders. We received a grant from the Criminal Justice Division of the Governor’s Office for a domestic violence prosecutor and investigator, but we quickly realized that there were simply too many cases for one person to manage, so we tasked two prosecutors in each court specifically with assisting in the prosecution of domestic violence cases. Initially this strategy worked well. It eased the burden on the domestic violence chief prosecutor, and cases were tried and resolved with pleas that addressed the underlying issues. However, as we monitored our processes, we realized a couple of things. First, our trial prosecutors were on an island by themselves when it came to case evaluation and plea offers, and there were myths concerning domestic violence that created an inequity in plea offers. Second, the domestic violence intake prosecutor was isolated when it came to determining whether a domestic violence case was prosecutable. While our office is essentially the biggest law firm in the county, we were not using our collective experience and talents to our advantage. That needed to change. Collaboration to the rescue.

Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration
In the educational world, collaboration has been around for decades. Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of people working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. Collaborative learning is based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which participants talk among themselves and, through that process, learning occurs. In that environment, people benefit when they are exposed to diverse viewpoints from people with varied backgrounds. Additionally, learners are challenged and benefit when they are required to articulate and defend their ideas. Collaboration also creates an “all for one and one for all” attitude that emphasizes the team over the individual.1
    Historically, our office has used elements of collaboration getting ready for trial. We routinely “board” cases, a process where the prosecutors on a given case lay out the witnesses and strategy for the rest of the office (including other attorneys, investigators, support staff, and victim assistance coordinators), who in turn ask questions, evaluate the strength of the case, and try to poke holes in the prosecutors’ strategy. We have found this to be a helpful tool because it strengthens our cases before trial by using the wisdom of everyone in the office to build a better case.

The “Lunch and Learn”
Building on that success, we looked at other problems where collaboration could make prosecutors more effective. We realized that most of our domestic violence prosecutors had two years or less of experience. We also realized that very experienced chief prosecutors could be leveraged to train younger prosecutors in settings other than just trial where the stakes are extremely high. Lastly, we knew from prior experience that food will usually get anyone to a meeting! So we started regular “Lunch and Learns” where the office buys lunch, and we go over different topics and create interactive learning experiences.
    Some of our Lunch and Learn topics have included domestic violence bond hearings, direct- and cross-examining experts, trial preparation, and cognitive and implicit bias, just to name a few. We also worked in-house with prosecutors doing mock direct examinations and cross examinations of uncooperative victims using our domestic violence victim assistance coordinator as our “uncooperative victim.”
    These Lunch and Learn ideas allowed us to engage in the process of learning from others and practicing skills in a way that fostered “team first” mentality, which is important to the health and culture of our office.

Partnering with the community
We also collaborate with people in the community, including our local junior colleges. Our new attorneys travel to Blinn Junior College criminal law classes in Bryan to conduct mock voir dires. (One of our experienced assistants, Ryan Calvert, wrote an excellent article on it here: www.tdcaa.com/journal/getting-creative-train-voir-dire.) This has provided us great feedback and allowed us to evaluate our prosecutors while they are getting chances to do jury selection with different sets of individuals. At the same time, young college students get a chance to get to know our prosecutors and what we stand for. I believe this can only help when those students become jurors in our county, or even prosecutors someday.
    We also teamed with Baylor Scott and White Hospital forensic nurses in College Station to do an all-day teaching module where forensic nurses taught our prosecutors about their job duties, and we conducted mock direct examinations and cross examinations with their team of nurses. Our prosecutors loved the training and said they learned so much in that one day working with these forensic experts. On the flip side, the nurses were thankful to get experience on the witness stand in a friendly environment. It was a win-win situation, which is the point of the collaborative process.  

The El Paso experience
These collaborative successes paved the way for our office to not only brainstorm new ideas but also to gather ideas from other jurisdictions and integrate them in our own practices. Members of our DV prosecution staff and I flew to El Paso to observe the DA’s Office’s domestic violence protocol (read more about it at www.tdcaa.com/journal/why-we-fight-against-domestic-violence), where they respond to every victim within 24 hours and then staff the case. (Big thank you to District Attorney Jaime Esparza and his team for hosting us!) When we saw the sheer magnitude of that office’s program, we realized we didn’t have the staff to replicate their process. But the El Paso experience did spur another idea: What if we could discuss cases as a team before indictment? Would that get cases more trial-ready when the case is indicted? Would it dispose of cases more quickly if we did more collaboration on the front end as opposed to a week before trial in the “boarding” session?
    We tried staffing our domestic violence cases pre-indictment to see if that would lead to better outcomes. We started to hold weekly meetings involving myself as the elected DA, the DV VAC Melissa Carter, DV Chief Jessica Escue, DV Intake Prosecutor Nathan Wood, and DV Investigator Mike Johse. Melissa sends out a list of cases each week, and everyone is expected to read the file and come to the meeting ready to discuss: 1) whether to indict the case, 2) what charge to file, and 3) whether more follow-up is needed. Follow-up could include witness interviews, subpoenaing hospital records, getting 911 phone calls, investigating the social media accounts of victims and witnesses, and the like. The most important part of the weekly meeting is that everyone is expected to participate, and everyone has a voice. We discuss, argue, and laugh our way through the Tuesday morning meetings, and it is in the free flowing conversation that we get the best ideas on how to gather evidence, charge cases, and prosecute offenders.
    The success of those meetings is evident in the cases we end up indicting: They are more trial-ready than ever! Cases plead faster, and those that don’t plead have resulted in more guilty verdicts and higher punishments from jurors, even when a victim is uncooperative. We are also dismissing more cases pre-indictment, cases that shouldn’t have been filed. I never would’ve expected our cases and our domestic violence team to get stronger from adding these weekly staffing meetings, and now I wouldn’t change it for the world. It has been time well spent.  

High-Risk Team
Building on the success of our collaborative weekly meeting, our next step was to bring together community partners to establish a Domestic Violence High Risk Team (DVHRT). The DVHRT model allows community partners to stop domestic violence by 1) identifying high-risk cases, 2) using a multi-disciplinary team approach to monitor and contain high risk offenders, and 3) extending victim services quickly to the most vulnerable survivors of domestic violence. Studies show that the majority of victims and abusers have had previous contact with the criminal justice system, victim assistance, and/or health care agencies in the year prior to a domestic violence homicide.2 That information indicates that there are multiple opportunities to prevent DV homicides if we can spot signs of abuse earlier and intervene.
    I feared we would get pushback from our community partners when we introduced the idea because it meant “another meeting.” I was wrong. When Jessica, the DV chief prosecutor, and Melissa, the DV VAC, explained our vision to representatives from all local police departments, the domestic violence shelter, County Attorney’s Office, Child Protective Services, the child advocacy center, Mental Health Mental Retardation center, adult probation, hospitals, and medical care providers, we got immediate buy-in. We now meet once a month at lunchtime in our office, and the local domestic violence shelter, Twin City Mission, provides lunch. (“If you feed them, they will come!”) We just started this program in October 2018, and it is already paying dividends.
    For example, we dealt with an abuser who had been to prison for domestic violence assault and now has warrants for domestic violence against another victim. We discussed this defendant at our DVHRT meeting and asked law enforcement to try to find him because he had been eluding us for months—we could not track him down to arrest him. We gave everyone at the meeting a description of the defendant and his vehicle so law enforcement could find him. It turned out that one of our community partners (not law enforcement) just happened to see the defendant’s car in a neighborhood and called our domestic violence VAC Melissa Carter on her cellphone at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night. Melissa then contacted local police, and the defendant was arrested that night! He had been on the run for more than two months. While this success may seem small, I look at it as the start of a great relationship that will build over the years and help thousands of women in domestic violence relationships.
    When we started this journey a few years ago of trying to aggressively prosecute domestic violence cases, I never dreamed we would have a High-Risk Team that involved agencies from all over my county working together to identify and protect victims. I don’t think that was my team’s dream either—but I guess that’s the point. Working together for a common goal creates dreams, ideas, and results that you could never have thought possible. You become greater than the sum of your parts. You become a team with a mission. And that is an unstoppable force.
    As I am finishing up writing this column, I spoke with the family I mentioned at the beginning, the parents who lost their son and daughter to domestic violence. They were in town for our Tree of Angels celebration where we honor victims who have died because of violent crime. I told them about this article and what we were doing to stop domestic violence, and I asked if I could use their story because of how it impacted my life and our office’s mission to combat domestic violence. The same mom whom I met at one of the lowest points in her life almost a decade ago looked at me and replied, “If this helps one person, it’s worth it.”
    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Endnotes

1  See Why Collaborative Learning Works, http://archive.wceruw.org/cl1/cl/moreinfo/MI2C.htm; B.L Smith and MacGregor, J.T. (1992). “What is Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education.” National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, & Assessment, Syracuse University.

2  For more information on Domestic Violence High-Risk Teams, please visit the Jeanine Geiger Crisis Center Website at http://dvhrt.org/about. You can also visit the Texas Council of Family Violence website,www.tcfv.org.