Judge, attorneys: Domestic violence court makes a difference
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After making it about halfway through a page-long list of names in domestic violence court last week, the prosecutor turned in her chair to face the victim.
"Thank you for being here," Monica Schwartz, an assistant Kanawha County prosecutor, whispered to the woman.
Mike Kelly, the family court judge, looked at the defendant, raising one eyebrow, "I'm not going to bust you on the driving suspended, because it was a non-DUI," he said. "I'll see you back here Aug. 16. If you don't pay [court fines] and don't show up, I've got to send the deputies out to get you."
The man, a defendant in a domestic violence case, had recently completed a day-report program and had been moved to work release.
Kelly has handled around 2,000 domestic violence cases over the past year. And although the caseload is heavy, he said he sleeps better at night knowing the process is being handled better.
"There are times, especially when you go home on weekends, you worry the kids are going to be killed, because someone with a [domestic violence petition] is going to be released on a PR bond," Kelly said.
But a new domestic violence pilot program is decreasing the chances of that happening. Next month will mark the first anniversary of the program in Kanawha County. The pilot is set to run another three years.
In the past, 10 magistrates and five family court judges handled domestic violence cases. The family court judges addressed the civil aspects of the cases, while magistrates dealt with criminal charges.
Under the pilot program, all aspects of the cases have been consolidated and are handled by Kelly and Kanawha Magistrate Julie Yeager.
Before, "it was confusing, because magistrates didn't know what family court judges were doing and family court judges didn't know what the magistrates were doing. You could have a case dismissed on one side and be in effect on the other side," Kelly said. "It was confusing, even for the litigants. There was just mass confusion.
"Now, we've pretty much got a handle on it."
According to the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 14,880 domestic violence cases were filed in West Virginia Family Court in 2010. About one-third of all homicides in the state are related to domestic violence.
Kanawha County, the state's most populous county, sees about 700 more domestic violence cases per year than any other county, according to information from the state's department of family court services.
Assistant Kanawha Prosecutor Erica Lord, who helps supervise the court, said for the first time, offenders with lengthy domestic violence records are now often going to jail.
"Before, defendants would come in and if the victim wouldn't show up at the hearing, they almost felt entitled, like they knew their case would be dismissed. And, with the amount of cases, it was standard practice, unless it was an extremely serious case, those cases would get dismissed if the victim didn't appear. That's not happening anymore," Lord said.
By digging deeper and utilizing more police, paramedic and eyewitness testimony, prosecutors are going ahead with cases, even without the victim's help, she said. The number one priority, Lord said, is to make sure the victim is safe.
Kelly pointed to two deaths in Kanawha, which he said really made officials realize something had to be done.
In 2008, Nalisha Gravely was shot to death at a West Side Taco Bell by her longtime boyfriend, Desmond D. Clark.
Clark's criminal history leading up to the murder showed numerous charges he faced in magistrate, circuit and family court in Kanawha County. Many included domestic violence charges against Gravely.
Gravely's murder is a perfect example, Kelly said, of how the overlapping jurisdictions made it difficult to coordinate efforts.
He also noted the death of 11-year-old Jahlil Clements, who died on the side of the highway last year trying to get help as his mother's boyfriend, Ethan Chic-Colbert, was beating her. Chic-Colbert was convicted of domestic battery, child neglect resulting in death and three counts of gross child neglect creating a serious risk of bodily harm or death.
He is also suspected by prosecutors to be involved in the 2010 death of a woman who was shot to death outside the Bird House Café and Lounge on Sixth Avenue. She had a domestic violence petition against him when she was killed.
"Those two cases, more than anything else, is what resulted in this court," Kelly said.
Kanawha court officials hope to encourage other counties to implement the program. They've already made presentations to police and domestic violence advocates in Morgantown and Logan.
"One of our goals is to have a cafeteria plan," Kelly said. "If some family courts can't do all parts of what we can do, since we have five judges, they can take parts of what we have and apply it.
"Someone who violates a protective order goes in front of a magistrate judge in 54 counties. A family court should be able to hear that. That's their order."
While the number of domestic violence cases hasn't dropped because of the program, Kelly said what counts is that things are being handled better. He believes that might eventually result in less violence.
"I don't think we will see a drop for probably another year, but I can guarantee there are some people who are going to see a drop immediately, because, for the first time, they're being held accountable," he said.
Public defender Rocky Holmes said word is spreading around the county that domestic violence cases are being taken more seriously.
Public defender Sara Whitaker stood with her client, another man charged with domestic violence, in front of Kelly on Friday afternoon. She explained that he had enrolled in treatment with the VA hospital.
"It looks like things are going well," the judge said to him, firmly. "You're doing good -- a lot better than last time."
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.