EBR prosecutors take new tack in domestic violence prosecutions

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Andromida McCall, a survivor of domestic violence, smiles when she thinks about her future, and the help she has received at the Iris Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Andromida McCall, a survivor of domestic violence, smiles when she thinks about her future, and the help she has received at the Iris Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge.

Victims’ cooperation no longer relied upon

After hurling accusations that his girlfriend had cheated, Walter Boone grabbed her by the hair, yanked her to the ground and rained down blows.

The attack only ended when she was able to grab something nearby — she wasn’t sure what — and whacked Boone, disorienting him long enough for her to run to a neighbor’s home and call police, court records show. He was arrested later that night.

But when the time came for prosecutors to prepare their case, the victim refused to cooperate, even signing a “do not charge” form at the District Attorney’s Office. She blamed the attack on a man she never met before.

Despite this significant hole in the case, prosecutors were still able to move forward, using photographs of the woman’s battered face and medical documentation, among other evidence, to take Boone to trial for the October 2012 beating. A jury last August deliberated for one hour before convicting Boone of second-degree battery. He was sentenced to five years in prison to serve concurrently with a 10-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Boone’s prosecution is just one example of how East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors are seeking to change how they deal with domestic violence in a state that consistently ranks near the top in the country in the number of homicides related to domestic abuse.

Over the past three years, the DA’s Office has worked slowly to move away from depending on the cooperation of victims, often taking that choice out of their hands and going forward strictly on physical evidence and testimony from any witnesses.

District Attorney Hillar Moore III wants to adopt another new approach to attack domestic violence, taking the tactics in place for the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination Project, the city-parish’s anti-gang initiative, and aiming them at offenders who attack their domestic partners.

BRAVE, an off-shoot of the nationally successful Operation Ceasefire program created by criminologist David Kennedy, is a collaborative effort among law enforcement, community leaders and researchers to identify the worst juvenile offenders in certain neighborhoods and offer them a way out of criminality. If they refuse the help, law enforcement attempts to bring down the hammer if that person breaks the law again.

The parallels between gangs and domestic violence might not be immediately obvious, but Moore said he is looking to the example of High Point, North Carolina, where authorities for five years have used a variation of Ceasefire strategies to drastically lower the domestic violence homicide rate.

It’s a model Moore admires from afar.

“I see no reason why it will not work here to prevent domestic violence homicides and domestic violence in general,” Moore said.

High Point’s success

High Point, a small city of about 109,000 people, has been touted as one of the most successful locations for Kennedy’s Ceasefire program. Police there began using the crime-fighting model in 2004 to tackle open-air drug markets, which Kennedy has said reduced not just dealing but the surrounding street violence. Starting in 2009, police decided to modify the strategies to take on domestic violence.

Police Chief Marty Sumner said that when his detectives examined the list of homicides in the five years before 2009, they found that domestic homicides worked out to about one-third of the killings — the biggest subset by far. They decided that needed to be their next focus.

What separates the High Point approach from others targeting domestic violence, Sumner and Kennedy said, is that they work on stopping offenders, as opposed to getting help for victims after the attack.

“What it was designed to do was to protect the most vulnerable women at the greatest risk from the most dangerous men,” Kennedy said. “If we know that this guy is systematically abusing this woman, then our response to that should be to make him stop, not to make her leave her home and go into a shelter with her kids.”

Now the city averages one domestic homicide a year, Sumner said. But the success did not happen overnight.

In 2011, two years after implementation, 46 percent of the domestic disturbance calls officers responded to involved injuries to victims. That number has since dropped to about 30 percent.

The program uses a four-tiered system that categorizes offenders based on the number of prior domestic violence arrests and takes into account criminal histories, weapon use in the domestic crimes and other factors, Sumner said.

People on Tier A are considered the most violent offenders, boasting lengthy rap sheets riddled with violent crimes and at least three domestic violence arrests, while those assigned to Tier D have never been arrested for domestic abuse but have had officers respond to their homes for incidents. Tier B contains those with two domestic violence arrests, and Tier C contains those with only one domestic violence arrest, Sumner said.

On each list, the type of intervention changes, with the most aggressive approach reserved for Tier A — they are arrested immediately on outstanding warrants or on fresh warrants after detectives reinvestigate old cases, Sumner said.

“Those guys had such rich criminal histories, they were so easy to identify,” Sumner said of those on Tier A, adding that when they compared the rap sheets of the Tier A offenders to those of convicted murderers, the one thing the men on Tier A lacked across the board was that murder conviction.

It is for Tier B that the High Point police have employed the hallmark technique of Ceasefire: a “call-in” that summons offenders in for collective meetings to warn them they need to shape up or feel the heat of law enforcement. Within the domestic violence context, these meetings often feature offenders in Tier A as examples for what could happen to the men police are targeting if they continue their violent ways.

Those in Tier C get a one-on-one chat with investigators on what could happen to them if they continue on the path they are on, all from the comfort of their jail cell after the first arrest.

When officers respond to a domestic disturbance at a home but don’t make an arrest, they do leave something behind on the door. The notice tells the offenders placed in High Point’s Tier D that police are changing how they handle domestic violence offenders and to tread carefully.

Sumner said when they first began planning the system, they reached out to victims’ assistance groups and battered women’s shelters to give advocates a glimpse of the system. Sumner said officials worried the groups would not get onboard with a strategy that focused on offenders, not victims. But the groups quickly rallied around it.

Judy Benitez, executive director of the Iris Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge, said she welcomes any system that focuses on domestic violence, not just ones focusing on victims.

“Any time that you are paying special attention to a specific issue, it is going to raise awareness throughout the community and throughout law enforcement,” she said.

Why not leave?

People often look at domestic violence victims and wonder: Why don’t they just leave?

Benitez said it’s just not that easy, adding she finds there are three main reasons women stay with their abusers.

The first, and main, reason is fear.

“She knows what he’s capable of, more so than anybody else,” Benitez said. “Whether it’s harming her, harming her children, harming her extended family, usually they’re pretty afraid of this person and for good reason.”

The second reason is that the abuser puts up physical, financial and emotional barriers to keep her from leaving. The third reason is that the victim stays because she thinks her abuser can change and become a better person.

“She desperately wants to believe that,” Benitez said. “Of course, it usually does prove to not be true.”

Andromida McCall, 31, of New Orleans, sought refuge at Iris after a long history of abuse at the hands of several men.

Not quite three months ago, pregnant with her third child, she decided she had enough. Her longtime boyfriend, John Virgil, 33, is accused of taking her cellphone in a fit of jealous rage on May 30 and bashing her in the head with it, according to an arrest warrant for domestic abuse battery. McCall said the attack was just the latest in a string of incidents.

The blow left her with a concussion and a small scar right above her left temple, McCall said.

“Every time I look at that scar on my head that he left and get those flashbacks from that night, I don’t want to be bothered with him,” she said in an interview last week. McCall said she believes Virgil is still at large. Attempts to reach Virgil were unsuccessful.

When she arrived at Iris one day after the attack, McCall could barely walk and seemed at death’s door, center workers said. Her untreated concussion along with the stress from moving caught up to her three days after arriving in the city.

She slipped into a coma. A blood transfusion a week later brought her back, and she woke with a newfound perspective on life and a healthy baby in her stomach.

Now she is eight months pregnant, ready to welcome her third girl into the world as she rebuilds her life. Her two daughters live with family in New Orleans and will join her soon in her new apartment.

“God is good,” McCall said, rubbing her stomach.

Best practices

When Moore took office in 2009, domestic abuse groups and victim’s rights advocates asked for a sit-down to discuss ways to improve the handling and prosecution of domestic violence cases.

Moore’s first task was to secure funding for a full-time domestic violence prosecutor, moving Melanie Fields from juvenile court prosecutor to the domestic violence post. Soon, they began looking for best practices for handling domestic violence prosecutions.

After research, they decided to implement the evidence-based prosecution, Moore said.

Their first task was retooling the way law enforcement investigates the cases.

“How much this works depends on large part on how good the police work is — to look for those other witnesses, to collect physical evidence,” said Tania Tetlow, a law professor at Tulane University and former federal prosecutor who specializes in domestic violence cases.

Prosecutors trained the officers to be more precise when describing the victim’s injuries in reports, take more photos of the injuries and crime scene, and try to find witnesses who would testify in court, Moore said.

In the past, officers would say there were “signs of a struggle” and move on, Moore said. Now they describe injuries specifically and make sure to call in paramedics so they have a medical report to corroborate the police report.

“When the victim then says, ‘Nothing happened to me’ or ‘I fell down the stairs and that’s how I got the black eye,’ we have a better case and a better shot to prosecute someone,” Hillar said.

This type of prosecution began in San Diego and is now becoming commonplace in big-city district attorney’s offices, Tetlow said.

“What’s important about it is the recognition is that there’s more witness tampering in these kinds of cases than any other,” Tetlow said. “If you take the power out of the victim to decide whether the case goes forward, you take the power away from the abuser to threaten the victim out of prosecution.”

Officials with the DA’s Office said they don’t keep detailed statistics about the domestic violence cases brought to them by police and whether the accused end up being charged. But Fields said the number of cases crossing her desk has dramatically increased from 400 four years ago to about 1,750 last year.

Since changing how the arrests are handled from the scene to the courtroom, Moore said his office is filing charges in more cases. Both guilty pleas and convictions have increased, with the majority of offenders pleading guilty, even in those cases where victims won’t cooperate, Fields said.

Punishing offenders

For first-time offenders, a conviction means a six-month jail sentence — with only 48 hours mandated without probation, parole or suspension — along with required participation in a 26-week court-ordered counseling program. For second-time offenders, the sentence was changed this past legislative session from six months to a year, with at least two weeks required in jail.

Those offenders also must attend the 26-week counseling session, which is something Fields and Moore have pushed as probation conditions for years.

“You know he’s going back, so our deal is, how are you going to send him back: with help or without help, because you know he’s going back,” Moore said.

Tetlow, the Tulane professor, is a skeptic of these classes, saying research shows they are effective for only a small percentage of people.

“The idea and the message we’re sending is kind of a crazy one,” Tetlow said. “We probably wouldn’t get rid of jail time for bank robbers and just give them a class.”

But Doris Dawson, a licensed domestic abuse counselor at the Family Services of Greater Baton Rouge, said she believes the counseling sessions truly help the offenders, saying the proof is how few have reoffended since 2009: just three.

Dawson, who has overseen the program since its inception, said the focus is on changing the behavior that got the offender in trouble in the first place. They work on many areas, such as having respect for women and children, being accountable for their actions, becoming a good partner and how to negotiate without resorting to violence.

The offenders also learn to take responsibility for their actions.

“Everybody else is the bad guy, but they are innocent,” Dawson said. “They want to blame the system; they want to blame her. They would like to blame the dog if they could, but I don’t let them.”

Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter, @ryanmbroussard.