North shore DA’s office taking more aggressive approach to domestic violence

When Assistant District Attorney Jo Heller calls a domestic violence victim in St. Tammany Parish, she often encounters anger and hostility, reactions that make the victim’s cooperation on the witness stand seem unlikely.

But Heller, who was hired by 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery to be one of two attorneys focusing solely on domestic violence cases, said those rocky beginnings can end with victims seeing the judicial process as a way out of a dangerous situation.

In one case, she said, a victim who had called her names and hung up the phone broke down in tears when she and investigator Jeff Montalbano showed up at the victim’s house two days before her abuser’s trial.

“I told her, ‘Look, I’m your friend, not the enemy. We’re here to help you,’ ” Heller recalled of the woman, who had been pregnant when the abuse occurred. “As soon as I told her that, she started crying and said, ‘Yes, he is bullying me. I want out of the relationship.’ “

That’s not an unusual scenario, according to Heller and Roy Burns III, the other attorney in the DA’s Domestic Violence Division. They said early and frequent contact with victims is one way to overcome their fear and reluctance to testify.

Adding additional resources, like a victim assistance coordinator, has been another key to bolstering domestic violence prosecutions in St. Tammany, they said.

When Montgomery took office in 2015, be began beefing up the Domestic Violence Division, Heller said. At the time, only one prosecutor was working on those cases, and a large backlog had built up. Montgomery doubled the number of attorneys and assigned a full-time investigator and secretary to the division. He also added the victim coordinator, Lindsey Rivenbark.

The team has eliminated the backlog, office spokeswoman Lisa Frazier Page said, and they’ve greatly reduced the number of cases dropped for lack of evidence or other problems. In 2014, the DA’s Office dropped 224 domestic violence cases, slightly more than the 222 that were prosecuted, most of which ended with guilty pleas.

But this year, the office has dropped only 39 cases through the end of September, with 100 defendants pleading guilty as charged, four found guilty as charged and 76 pleading guilty to reduced charges.

“In the past, I think the idea was, with domestic violence: You go to court, the victim doesn’t show up two or three times, the case goes away,” Burns said. “And that’s what happened, but that’s not happening anymore.”

The attorneys give a lot of credit to the addition of Rivenbark, the coordinator, which Burns said “amped up” the division. But they also point to other changes, including immediate access to police reports that allows Rivenbark to make contact with victims sooner, plus the prosecutors’ own aggressive screening of cases.

They will also begin taking on the prosecution of some felony domestic abuse cases. Burns and Heller now screen all the domestic violence cases, whether they are considered misdemeanors or felonies. But they have been in charge of prosecuting only the misdemeanors, with the felonies being handled by other lawyers. Now, Burns said, the pair will stay with the cases of people they deem to be career criminal domestic abusers all the way through a felony jury trial.

“Domestic violence is about control,” Burns said. “The defendant has a great amount of control over the victim in these cases … before, during and after.” That can happen through direct contact with the victims or through other family members who put pressure on the victims — pressure that often escalates into bullying.

Victims are most willing to move forward right after the violence happens, Burns said. But if the prosecutors don’t stay in touch, the abuser is often able to regain control.

“They go MIA, go missing. And if you don’t have constant contact with them … you lose them. But with (Rivenbark) the contact stays, we continue to talk to them, and the results get a lot better,” Burns said.

Heller described the coordinator’s role as hand-holding and offering help with navigating the system, allowing the attorneys to focus on fact-finding to build a strong case.

Now, Rivenbark said, she has immediate access to police reports from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, which provides her with victim contact information. That change happened within the last couple of months, she said, and it enables her to reach out to victims within 72 hours of the incident.

“Some defendants need to be punished and need to go to jail,” Rivenbark said. “Some people need help. … I usually have to tell them, the more they cooperate with us the easier it is to get that outcome for their loved one. We want to help families stay together, if possible.”

Help can take the form of anger management classes, substance abuse treatment, mental health evaluation and probation that includes regular drug testing, the team members said.

Most victims of domestic violence are women who are battered by a man, the attorneys said, with Burns pegging it at 85 percent.

But cases also can involve children. Heller cited the case of a 12-year-old girl whose father punched her in the face. The child was adamant that he be held accountable for the crime, she said, calling it a difficult situation.

Men also are victims in some cases, the attorneys said, and Burns and Heller are beginning to see cases coming in under a recently enacted law covering battery of a domestic partner.

The state Legislature is also providing more penalty enhancements for domestic abuse cases, including a pregnancy and child endangerment enhancement and another for injuries caused by fire.

“All penalties for other crimes are going down … but for domestic violence crimes, the penalties are going up,” Burns said.

Legislators “see this as a huge issue that affects everyone — poor, middle class, upper class, it doesn’t matter. And the consequences, if it continues, are so bad,” Burns said. “Murder, that’s what it comes down to. We’re preventing murders.”

Louisiana is second only to Alaska for per capita incidents of domestic homicide, according to Kim Kirby, executive director of Safe Harbor, a shelter for victims.

According to the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, St. Tammany’s rate of domestic violence is on par with other parishes with similar populations. Its two-year average for 2015-16 was 0.82 incidents of violence per 100,000 residents, compared with 0.86 for Lafayette Parish. But Louisiana’s domestic homicide rate is twice as high as the national average.

Montgomery sees the problem that way. In a Youtube video promoting his domestic violence efforts, he said many of the murders in the 22nd Judicial District are the result of domestic violence.

By adding resources, he said, “We are not only reducing murders and domestic violence, but we are also encouraging individuals to enter into programs to help them establish and maintain healthy relationships.”

Originally featured in the New Orleans Advocate. Read Story Here