New laws,
same old cycle

American-Statesman analysis shows that 65% of felony charges filed against repeat domestic abusers in Travis County are later dropped or reduced.

With eight convictions for family violence offenses, Cruz Ramirez Jr. was charged with a felony after he surprised his girlfriend at work one day in October 2013. She told officers he grabbed her by the hair and shoved her into a stairwell, then punched her twice in the chest and shoved her to the ground, police records show.

But a year after his October 2013 arrest, the couple had reconciled, the felony charge was dropped, and Ramirez pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced in January 2015 to one year in jail.

The Ramirez case offers a snapshot of what has become routine in Travis County criminal courts, an American-Statesman investigation shows.

Repeat domestic violence offenders are automatically charged with felonies in Texas after lawmakers passed reforms to protect victims who cannot extricate themselves from dangerous and increasingly violent relationships. But the felony cases are flooding the district attorney’s office in Travis County and are often reduced or tossed out.

The Statesman analyzed more than 900 felony domestic violence cases filed from October 2013 to October 2014 and found that nearly half of the defendants had prior felony family violence offenses.

In 65 percent of the cases analyzed, the felony charges were either dropped or pleaded down.

An additional 69 cases remained pending as of last week.

EYE ON CRIME: Click to receive our Crime and Safety Report by email every Monday

Austin courts officials say that, despite the findings, the criminal justice reforms are working. Travis County’s domestic violence court, founded in 1999, has become a model for other communities, and it has a prosecutor, Kelsey McKay, who is a national expert in building felony strangulation cases against repeat abusers.

Beverly Mathews, head of the district attorney’s family violence division, said new enhancements like those for repeat offenders make abusers more likely to plead down to a misdemeanors in cases that would have otherwise been thrown out had they originally been charged as lower offenses.

And harsher convictions aren’t always the solution. Incarceration can harm victims and their families who rely on the defendant for economic stability. “In many cases, if we secure a misdemeanor, that in itself is a victory,” Mathews said.

Others say the high percentage of reduced charges shows that the reforms are bogged down in a court system that remains too reliant on the victim’s willingness to press charges and testify against the abuser.

“There are some cases where you clearly need the victim to proceed, and there are some cases where you don’t,” said Margaret Bassett, a domestic violence counselor who last year left the district attorney’s office. “And then there is this huge middle ground of cases that I think are not always assigned to prosecutors with the training and understanding of the dynamics of family violence and who may make decisions from a place of misinformation or bias.”

Of the 7,321 domestic violence cases that have rolled through criminal court dockets in Travis County over the past decade, 80 — or just over 1 percent — had gone to trial as of 2015. With so much operating behind closed doors, it is difficult to determine whether the system works to protect people, criminal justice experts said.

Bassett, who now works at the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas, says all of the players need to be involved: Prosecutors need to hold the line on felony cases and be more willing to go trial. And judges need to stop allowing offenders to constantly reset their cases.

“To me, there needs to be a step back: ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” she said. “Not every case can go to trial. But we could do a better job of asking, ‘How do we as a community believe that these behaviors should be punished in the legal system?’”

A glut of felony cases

In the Austin area, police log more than 1,500 family violence incidents each month, most of which don’t lead to an arrest. Such abuse was a factor in five killings, or 22 percent of area homicides, in 2015 — down from a peak of 12 domestic violence-related homicides in 2010.

But, while authorities said Travis County has seen a drop in domestic violence reports and homicides since 2013, the number of felony cases handled by the family violence division was expected to roughly double to 838 cases this fiscal year.

The numbers have grown as Texas lawmakers and advocates have made huge strides changing how the legal system — which is set up to prosecute isolated incidents — treats domestic violence. Physical and sexual assaults lead to arrests and bring attention to dangerous relationships, but batterers often use less apparent abusive tactics to hold power and control over their victims.

Earlier efforts focused on raising awareness of those complicated dynamics, building support networks for survivors and improving law enforcement training. Now attention is turning to helping prosecutors build cases around ongoing conduct.

State laws in 2009 made intimate partner strangulation and suffocation into felony offenses based on studies that found defendants who choke their victims are more likely to kill them. Before, prosecutors had the option to file the charges as misdemeanors.

Other criminal offenses, such as continuous family violence or continuous violations of a protective order, can now be enhanced to felonies with prior convictions, while lawmakers last legislative session created new statutes allowing prosecutors and their witness experts to delve deeper into an offender’s criminal history at trial in hopes that cases rely less on testimony from survivors.

“These are important changes,” said Aaron Setliff, policy director for the Texas Council on Family Violence. “You can’t tell the story of a batterer and a victim without explaining how he has used power and control to set her up to be a victim.”

Yet domestic violence experts and lawyers also warn that repeat abusers can still game the system by coercing their victims to drop charges, only to hurt them even worse later, as in the case of Christopher Scott, an Austin homebuilder who nearly killed his ex-girlfriend after she recanted her accusations against him in a felony case, court records show.

Travis County Assistant District Attorney Kelsey McKay, with a screen shot of bruising on a strangulation victim's neck.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The vicious cycle

Scott, 43, pushed his girlfriend to the ground, grabbed her ponytail and repeatedly slammed her head against a hard wood floor one night in April 2013, according to a police report. He choked her as she screamed for help, the report states.

“I begged him to stop, fearing for my life,” she later told officers.

Blood poured from the gash under her chin. The impact of the blows broke her back molars and fractured her mandible, and she lost chunks of her hair.

But two months later, she testified on Scott’s behalf at his bond hearing, telling the court she had been “belligerently drunk” and had fallen down after she made false accusations against her boyfriend. Based on her testimony, Travis County Judge Mike Denton reduced Scott’s bail from $500,000, as recommended by a grand jury, to $60,000, finding the original amount “oppressive” as he awaited trial, according to a court transcript.

The next time police encountered the 28-year-old woman was on the evening of Jan. 7, 2014, after Scott had beat her up so badly that her brain was bleeding in four separate areas, police records show. He kicked and punched her all over her body and attempted to asphyxiate her with an electrical cord, according to police.

She managed to crawl to the driveway when Scott’s roommate came home, and she was found crouched next to a Car2Go vehicle with a bruised face and black eyes swollen shut.

As officers arrested Scott, he laughed and said he would bond out before the end of the night, then offered to bet the officers $10,000 that the charges against him would be dropped, police reports said.

Not this time

Scott would have lost the bet. While he was in jail, Assistant District Attorney Kelsey McKay presented his case to a grand jury, and he was indicted on felony charges of aggravated assault and strangulation.

McKay came to the district attorney’s office a decade ago and has since become a national expert on strangulation cases. She created the supplemental report that many law enforcement agencies across Texas now use to investigate those crimes.

At her training sessions, she teaches officers and prosecutors to collect everything they need on the day of the assault, “as if they are never going to see the victim again.”

“That takes the pressure off the victim and takes the power away from the abuser,” she said.

In most crimes, such as drunken driving or burglary, the arrest is the culmination of the investigation. In domestic violence cases, more chaos often ensues.

Abusers can violate a protective order and sometimes even find ways to harass their victims from jail. They can have relatives persuade them to drop the charges. They can threaten to report them to Child Protective Services.

“There is so much going on behind the scenes,” McKay said. And it’s a difficult balance: empowering victims while understanding their vulnerable situation. That is why prosecutors need so much time and training.

At Scott’s trial, prosecutors played the jail calls where he pressured his girlfriend to dismiss the case. They played the call his roommate made to police, when Scott said he was going to kill his girlfriend and hang her from a tree. He was convicted in September of aggravated assault and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Advocates for domestic violence victims say Scott’s case is a warning that Travis County’s lauded domestic violence courts need more resources.

Prosecutors said they need more funding for staff, overtime and specialized training. Some lawyers and social workers also said they would like to see a restructuring of the family violence division, so that it can take on all cases involving that type of abuse, including first-degree felony crimes, such as murder and aggravated assaults.

Right now, “prosecutors are overloaded, they are ill-trained on the dynamics, and then the time they spend pending kills the cases,” said Noël Bridget Busch-Armendariz, a professor and associate dean for research at UT’s School of Social Work.

“These are complicated cases, and the truth is many victims and offenders will continue to be connected because of shared children. It’s not so simple to say, ‘We are going to prosecute them all and put them in jail,’ because these are not just emotional connections, but financial connections,” she said.