The March 24 slaying of a South Toledo woman who was pursued and shot to death by her abusive ex-boyfriend lit a fire under courts that handle cases of domestic abuse, but officials say recent changes they’ve made are for all victims.
“This is about Kaitlin Gerber, but in Lucas County we had 18 domestic-violence homicides last year,” said Kathryn Sandretto, an assistant county prosecutor now assigned full time to felony cases involving relationship violence. “We have to do everything we can to avoid all 18. Every one of those victims deserves a voice.”
Ms. Gerber, 20, was chased in her car and shot in a South Toledo parking lot by her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Jashua Perz, 29, who subsequently killed himself during a standoff with police. Perz had been in and out of court — and jail — for domestic violence, and many questioned why the courts didn’t do more to protect his victim.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said she made several key staff changes this summer that she hopes will make a difference. She shifted a third assistant prosecutor to Toledo Municipal Court to help with the heavy felony caseload that begins in that court; she hired an additional advocate to work exclusively with victims of domestic violence as their cases proceed through common pleas court, and she assigned Ms. Sandretto to prosecute all felony domestic violence and related cases in common pleas court.
“We had to create a position where the victims knew that the system was going to work for them and not against them,” Ms. Sandretto said. “Where one person was focused on this set of crimes so that they could gain an expertise in not just victim-driven prosecution but evidence-based prosecution — where if the victim isn’t willing to cooperate, can’t cooperate, is too afraid to cooperate, we make every effort to still proceed with the case.”
Dave Toska, chief prosecutor for the city of Toledo, said his office is launching a two-person domestic-violence unit on Sept. 1 that he said will be “an aggressive trial unit for domestic violence.” Two assistant prosecutors will work full time on the most difficult cases, as well as those involving repeat and violent offenders.
“It’s just such an epidemic out there,” Mr. Toska said, adding, “It wasn’t just the Kaitlin Gerber case; that wouldn’t be fair to all of the other victims. We just feel it’s now time to become more aggressive.”
Municipal court handles between 1,800 and 2,000 domestic violence cases a year, a figure that doesn’t include related crimes such as violations of protection orders and menacing. While domestic violence is only a small percentage of the 50,000 or so criminal and traffic cases the court handles each year, two of the 11 prosecutors on staff will be working exclusively on domestic violence, Mr. Toska said.
Like the county prosecutor’s office, the specialized domestic-violence unit actively will pursue prosecutions in cases where the victim is not willing to cooperate as happens so often because of fear, intimidation, or a change of heart.
The statistics show the challenge.
Christopher Lawrence, an assistant city prosecutor assigned to the unit, said that in July alone, a victim appeared in court in only 53 of the 181 cases that were resolved. Of the 14 cases that went to trial in July, the defendant was convicted in nine of them — seven in which a victim appeared and two in which the victim did not.
Mr. Toska said that more and more, his office tries to obtain evidence that will lead to a conviction even when a victim refuses to testify.
“We listen to jailhouse calls. You’d be surprised how many defendants give us evidence in phone calls they make to other family members, friends, or believe it or not, the victim who has a restraining order against them,” he said. “We get 911 tapes, which is one of the truest pieces of evidence. … We use booking photos from jail to tack together or piece together an identity trail.”
Municipal court judges still are considering a proposal by Judge Michelle Wagner to establish a dedicated domestic violence docket in which one judge would handle all domestic-violence cases rather than assigning them among the seven judges. The judges also have discussed creating a waiting area for victims that would keep them apart from their alleged abusers.
All agree it’s a crime that requires particular delicacy.
Domestic violence is unique, Mrs. Bates said, because the perpetrator and the victim often love each other or are connected by children and the years they’ve spent together in an intimate relationship.
“Just last week, a girl was going on and on about how she loves the guy. ‘I don’t care. He hits me, but so what?’ ” Mrs. Bates recalled. “‘I don’t care,’ but what about the kids? And the next time he’s going to kill her. We know that because we’ve had so many killings.”
Mrs. Bates said she wanted to create a nurturing team to work with such victims and hired James Voorman, a Lutheran pastor, to work as a victims’ advocate in her office. It’s no coincidence that he is the only male in the victims assistance office, assigned to work with mostly female victims of partner abuse.
“For women who have been abused, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have someone they trusted who was smart and caring and compassionate and male?” Mrs. Bates said.
In addition to their courtroom duties, Mr. Voorman and Ms. Sandretto have been leaving the courthouse to meet with victims who can’t come to them. Many have transportation and child-care issues, so they will meet at neutral spots like libraries for interviews.
Ms. Sandretto said she understands domestic violence is not a clear-cut issue. So many factors go into each situation that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the victim to escape the abusive relationship, particularly if the two people love each other.
“If we have a specialized victim’s advocate who understands that and a prosecutor who at least sympathizes with that, we might be able get more victims to cooperate with prosecution,” she said. “And we might find more solutions than just lock them up.”
Prosecutors said it will be difficult to gauge what impact the changes in the court system will have, but Mrs. Bates said she’s hopeful.
“They might save someone’s life and the thing is you won’t know that,” she said. “I think the potential is there to save lives and rebuild lives. That’s what our hope is.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.