New Travis County DA aims to clear domestic violence case backlog

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Travis County’s newly-elected District Attorney is modeling a new domestic violence prosecution trial team after one already used to move child sex abuse cases through the local judicial system, KXAN News has learned.

Margaret Moore says her plan involves assigning a dedicated prosecutor to each of eight district courts as well as two more lawyers who will channel new cases to either misdemeanor or felony courts. It is a bid, Moore says, to more efficiently handle a high volume of felony family violence cases that continue to fill the county jail where offenders can wait months before going to trial.

margaret-moore-dec-2016
Newly-elected Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore

“We want to knock down that jail wait time. These cases need the attention from the get-go. The longer they stall in the system, the worse everybody is,” says Moore. “It’s challenging trial work and we’re putting some very good attorneys on it.”

Who will be on that team has yet to be made public. Moore initiated a spate of house-cleaning in November, letting go a number of attorneys who had worked under outgoing DA Rosemary Lehmberg.

By the end of FY 2016, 520 inmates had been charged with felony family violence assault and/or strangulation; that number is down slightly from 2015’s record 557 which topped a climb of several years, according to Travis County Court Administration records. At last check, 84 people are currently incarcerated facing felony family violence-related crimes in Travis County.

Some of the increase in cases can be attributed to when lawmakers heightened the criminal charge of strangulation to a 3rd-degree felony from a misdemeanor in 2009. Soon after, Austin police began using a strangulation reporting form while interviewing victims.

Crowded jails and backlogged courts

Up until five months ago, felony domestic violence courts were heard in County Court 4, a specialty court in the county court system.

“For both sides, whether it be the defendant or victim of an issue, speed is important,” said County Court 4 Judge Mike Denton, who has sat on the domestic violence bench since its creation in Travis County in 2004. “At the same time, like everything else that’s done in a courtroom, there’s always a balance. If speed is the only goal, and you’re ignoring safety issues, then obviously, you’ve made it worse.”

Records requested by KXAN found average days to disposition reached nearly a year as of this summer. In FY 2013, it took 158 days to disposition.

Average Jail Stay for Felony Domestic Violence Suspects
FY17: 59 days
FY16: 77.8 (through Sept. 1, 2016)
FY15: 62.7
FY14: 56.3

Last June, to ease the backlog, a decision was made to assigned new felony domestic/family violence cases to the eight criminal district courts. In some cases, the judges are turning to Denton for his expert advice.

“I’ve had several judges come to me over in the last month [September] and ask for advice…and talk over a case. Everything from bond issues, ‘What kind of conditions should I set if I set this bond?’ to legal issues,” said Denton who has been recognized nationally for his work in the domestic violence arena. Moore says there are planned internal training sessions aimed at increasing prosecutors’ sensitivity to the perils of trying a domestic violence case where a victim may remain too frightened or traumatized to testify.

Dimple Malhotra, a former family violence prosecutor who now manages probation orders in Travis County, says domestic violence trials are unlike any other crimes because the victims know their attackers intimately.

“This is a crisis and to downplay it and to think just because it’s a misdemeanor or it’s a third-degree felony, doesn’t do it justice,” said Malhotra. “You have to look at the risk of lethality and the risk to the victim. That should be the driving force behind how these crimes are prioritized.”

It’s too soon to adequately examine the number of domestic violence cases heard in district courts to see how final outcomes there compare to dispositions from the county specialty court and if some offenders are getting breaks.

The changes also brought concern from victim advocate groups who suggested pitting such ‘tricky’ cases up against the clear-cut horrors of a graphic child sex abuse case or a murder may tempt busy prosecutors attending to full criminal dockets to plea down or dismiss a domestic violence case.

“It’s my concern that those crimes will be dismissed and pled down because they can’t possibly prosecute the number of [other criminal] cases they’re charged with,” said Emily Leblanc with The SAFE Alliance before Moore was elected.

Prior to this story, The SAFE Alliance issued the following statement on Moore’s plan: “We count on the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to hold offenders accountable. DA-Elect Margaret Moore’s plan has merit and we will continue to work and watch closely. Lives are literally at stake.”

Putting a Name to Domestic Violence

Those who have survived domestic abuse like ‘Brandy’ agree. “I think there’s a chance if it went to a different judge they may not have cared… So they could have said, ‘yeah, get the plea deal done, get everyone out of here and that’s one less case.’” Worried about her safety, KXAN agreed to hide Brandy’s identity and use a different name.

“I was with him for a year and a half. And a year of that was after we moved here, I mean half way across the country. I left everybody behind and that was when he really isolated me,” said Brandy. “The closest family I had was [hundreds of] miles away.”

The abuse began verbally and slowly escalated, Brandy said. “There were instances where I was told I should go kill myself.”  Then it would be accidents. “Like an accidental bump… [one] that accidentally hit me in the face. So, there would be red marks on my eyes and bruises.”

“He’s choking me with both hands to the point where I feel I’m going to lose consciousness.”

One night last fall after a fun evening spent out in downtown Austin, Brandy says her boyfriend’s unpredictable anger morphed into near-deadly rage during an argument.

“Rather than just getting out of the car at that point, he put the car in park, kind of got up and grabbed me by the throat and began slamming the back of the back of my head into the window. He’s choking me with both hands to the point where I feel I’m going to lose consciousness. I’m fighting with him the best I can to pull his hands off of my throat… and I’m trying to protect myself…”

With tears running down her face and pleas for him to stop go unanswered, he continued to choke her. “There’s no hesitation from him even with all the blood, he goes right back to choking me… and punching me.”

Witnesses to the brutal attack called police. Police arrested Brandy’s boyfriend and charged him with a felony strangulation charge.Ultimately, as part of the trial process, Brandy wrote Judge Mike Denton a letter explaining the abuse. Her ex-boyfriend was convicted. Judge Denton sentenced him to probation since he has no other family violence convictions in Texas.

Ultimately, as part of the trial process, Brandy wrote Judge Mike Denton a letter explaining the abuse. Her ex-boyfriend was convicted and Judge Denton sentenced him to probation since he has no other family violence convictions in Texas. While he didn’t get jail time, Brandy is happy with the outcome of an actual conviction. If he violates a protection order and tries to communicate with her, he could go to prison.

Where to get help

Most law enforcement agencies have dedicated time and online resources to helping someone in the grips of a family violence crisis.The SAFE Alliance is one local non-profit agency that helps survivors.

There are also state resources for judicial system workers such as links on the District and County Attorneys Association site and a Domestic Violence Bench Book published in 2010.

Next October, Travis County’s DA’s Office is expected to receive a grant that will allow the DA-elect Moore to expand prosecution of the crime of sexual assault of an intimate partner and bring it outside of the current Family Violence Division.

“A year from now I think everyone will see we will have instituted what I think will be a model program, for victim outreach, case investigation, case resolution, expeditiously,” Moore said.