Wagner to ask 7 Toledo Municipal Court judges to consider domestic violence docket proposal

Toledo Municipal Court Judge Michelle Wagner called for the establishment of a domestic violence docket for Toledo Municipal Court during a press conference Tuesday at One Government Center.
Toledo Municipal Court Judge Michelle Wagner called for the establishment of a domestic violence docket for Toledo Municipal Court during a press conference Tuesday at One Government Center.

Toledo Municipal Court Judge Michelle Wagner today called for the establishment of a designated domestic violence docket to respond swiftly and provide consistency to cases she said are among the court's most serious.

Judge Wagner will ask the seven municipal court judges to consider her proposal at a meeting today and vote in May to support the plan. With their approval, she thinks the court could launch a system in a year in which one judge handles all domestic violence cases.

“You’ve got to strike at the right time, and I think this is the right time. I think now people are waking up with what happened with Kaitlin Gerber, and unfortunately it takes that to bring it to the front burner again,” she said.

Ms. Gerber, 20, was chased in her car and shot to death last month by Jashua Perz, 29, her on-again, off-again boyfriend who then killed himself. The high-profile case drew extensive review, and the victim’s family has contended the court and legal systems could have done more to protect her.

Meanwhile, the city prosecutor's office is working on plans to devote two attorneys to handle domestic violence cases.

Judge Wagner’s proposal calls for designating one judge to handle domestic violence cases from beginning to end. Presently, a normal case might have three different judges involved at various points, said William Connelly, Jr., the court’s presiding judge.

Judge Wagner, who called for a separate docket during her 2011 campaign, said the change could allow for a designated victim advocate, prosecutor, public defender, and probation officer to work domestic violence cases.

Such a system would give the court more time to communicate with other jurisdictions about cases involving the same defendants, as well as bring familiarity to cases and personal histories, she said.

“It allows you to see when someone’s escalating. You’re coordinating other services for the victim,” she said. “You have a better understanding of the people and what’s going on in their lives because of the familiarity with the case and the parties.”

Judge Wagner said she doesn’t anticipate additional cost to accommodate her proposal, at least initially. Councilman Lindsay Webb, who joined the judge and Councilman Shaun Enright at a news conference today, said the docket changes can be paid for by reallocating funds, and grant money could be sought next year.

The proposed changes would require amending court rules and allowing a period for public comment, Judge Connelly said.

“I’m certainly open to any suggestion that improves the process with regards to domestic violence,” he said.

The idea was cheered by psychologist Carol Smith, who works with local offenders through the Batterers' Intervention Program. She thinks a designated docket would increase the number of victims who participate in cases.

About 58 percent of the nearly 1,500 domestic violence cases resolved last year in the Toledo court were dismissed. Often, a case is dismissed because a victim fails to appear, said Adam Loukx, the city's law director.

He said work is underway to create a two-attorney “domestic violence unit” within the prosecutor’s office, at the instruction of Mayor Mike Bell. Mr. Loukx said one attorney on staff will be promoted from an administrative specialist position, and the office will seek applications to fill a new position to increase the staff to 10 lawyers. Those additions will cost about $100,000, according to early estimates.

Mr. Loukx said he isn’t sure which attorneys will form the unit and hopes it is operating before summer. He doesn’t think council approval is required.

Having two prosecutors concentrate on domestic violence cases helps build rapport and build “a level of trust” with the victim, he said.

Judge Wagner was joined at the One Government Center press conference by all three Lucas County commissioners and Councilman Joe McNamara.

Ms. Webb today asked council members to approve a resolution in support of the docket change. A hearing will take place on that proposed resolution at a later date.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@toledoblade.com, or 419-724-6065.