The 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office hasn’t prosecuted more than half of the felony domestic violence cases it has handled since January 2006.
Deborah Potter, a victim's advocate in the District Attorney’s Office who specializes in domestic violence cases, acknowledges “those numbers are terrible,” yet sees no foreseeable changes to the way these cases are handled. In many instances, she notes, the victims decide not to pursue their cases, change their stories or leave town entirely.
But the victims who do cooperate with authorities face challenges as well: Cases can take up to two years to be heard, due to packed court dockets and understaffing.
Turnover at the District Attorney’s Office also is high. “If we keep an attorney for 18 months, we’re doing good,” Potter says. “They’re either quitting or going to another position in the office…It’s discouraging work.”
The District Attorney’s Office requested funding last year for an additional domestic violence prosecutor but was turned down by the state Legislature.
Because cases take so long to be heard, 1st District Prosecutor David Foster says victims often give up.
“It has a huge impact,” Foster tells SFR. “Victims think, ‘Why should I report this, if nothing’s going to happen? It does no good to open my mouth. I’ll just get beat worse the next time.’”
Since the beginning of 2006, 818 felony cases were heard in the 1st Judicial District Court, which covers Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties. Of those, the District Attorney’s Office declined prosecution in 502 cases. The court dismissed 17 cases, and only 10 resulted in a guilty verdict by jury trial. Another 29 cases were plea-bargained down from a felony to a misdemeanor.
In Magistrate Court, where misdemeanor domestic violence cases are heard, the numbers are not much more encouraging. Of the 2,368 cases heard since January 2006, the DA’s office declined prosecution in almost half of them—1,146. The court dismissed another 58 cases and only 188 cases resulted in guilty verdicts at trial.
Furthermore, reported domestic violence cases are likely to increase, according to Carol Horwitz, the city’s domestic violence liaison. She reports a 45 percent increase in police dispatch reports between the first quarters of 2007 and 2008. However, Horwitz believes the increase is positive because “it means more people are coming forward.”
1st Judicial District Judge Michael Vigil applauds Horwitz’ efforts but laments the increase in cases. He currently has approximately 1,300 open cases.
“The numbers are alarming,” Vigil says. He concurs that the lack of convictions usually results from reconciliations between the victim and defendant, which not only makes prosecutions more difficult but also endangers the victims. And without prosecutions, the cycle of violence continues.
Sherry Taylor, executive director of Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families, Inc., describes the cycle of domestic abuse as one that is hard to break regardless.
“It sometimes takes up to 11 times for someone to leave an abusive situation,” she says. In many cases, the perpetrator is the main source of income for the family and the father of the victim’s children. “You don’t just take off and leave your life,” Taylor says.
The lack of convictions for domestic violence perpetrators, she says, “puts the victims back in an unsafe place again…It’s also more power for the offender, if they don’t have to pay the price.” For victims, she says, “It creates a lack of trust in the justice system.”