While domestic violence cases increase in Harris County, convictions decrease

Harris County sees a huge increase in domestic violence cases since 2017. (KPRC)

HARRIS COUNTY – KPRC 2 Investigates how thousands of domestic violence cases are being handled by the Harris County District Attorney’s office. We’ve uncovered an increasing number of cases being dismissed.

Ashley’s Survival Story

Ashley Durrett is a survivor of domestic violence.

Durrett says abuse gradually crept into her relationship with Gene Ysidron. She was pregnant and had a 5-year-old son.

“I was scared to leave,” Durrett said. “I didn’t know how to tell my family. I didn’t know how to tell my friends what was going on, my co-workers.”

Durrett was good at making excuses.

“They would ask questions because they would see bruises. I would say I ran into something because they all knew that I was clumsy,” said Durrett.

She finally couldn’t take the abuse any longer and worried it would spill over to her son and now young daughter.

“At that moment it was, ‘I have to protect my children. It’s not about me anymore,’” Durrett said.

Ysidron was charged with felony family violence and Durrett wanted him to serve time in prison. This was Ysidron’s second family violence case.

The Phone Call at Walmart

Durrett says she was told the Harris County prosecutor was not taking the case to trial, so there would be no need for her to testify. Ysidron walked away with a plea deal and probation.

“I was in the middle of Walmart when they called me and I broke down crying and had to have someone come get me off the floor because I couldn’t even breath or walk or get up,” said Durrett. “I called my mom and was like, ‘He’s getting out, he’s getting away.’”

Ysidron did end up doing jail time because he violated protective orders in the case. Durrett still felt slighted.

“They weren’t here to protect the victim. They’re here to make it easy for the criminal,” said Durrett.

Durrett’s case ended not long after Kim Ogg was first elected Harris County District Attorney in 2017.

Statement from DA on Ashley’s case

“The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is committing to seeking justice for victims. Our team spoke with this victim throughout this process to let her know about any developments, listen to her input, and answer any questions. Given the specific facts and circumstances in this matter, specialized prosecutors in our Domestic Violence Division felt this was the best possible outcome. Our office has prosecuted this defendant, resulting in him being sentenced to prison previously and most recently to jail.

Ogg’s Campaign Promises

Ogg campaigned on changing the way domestic violence cases are handled.

“We got to do something, it’s killing people,” said Ogg while a guest on Houston Newsmakers with Khambrel Marshall in 2019.

Newsmakers for Jan. 27, 2019: Domestic violence epidemic

Her re-election website touted an approach that is “evidence-based and victim-centric,” while targeting “high-risk offenders.”

Domestic Abuse Response Team

Now into her second term, KPRC 2 Investigates wanted to know where the numbers stand on prosecutions. KPRC 2 Investigates reviewed data provided by the DA’s office. We looked at 45,000 domestic violence cases filed during Ogg’s first year in office through the end of 2020.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES FILED UP 83% (2017-2020)

The number of cases filed jumped from 8,114 in 2017 to 14,914 in 2020, which is 83%.

Convictions Down. Dismissals Up.

But what happened to those cases? How were they resolved?

We looked for trends to see how those cases were disposed of year to year.

We found the percentage of cases that were dismissed went up dramatically, while the percent of convictions went down.

The number of cases dismissed jumped from 35% in 2017 to 66% in 2020.

And the number of convictions dropped from 43% in 2017 to just 20% in 2020.

In 2017, the majority of cases were deferred or convicted. By 2020, the majority were dismissed.

Reason for Dismissals

As for the reason for the dismissal, only a small percentage showed the victim backed out or the defendant was charged with a different crime. A handful of times the defendant was dead. But, a majority of the dismissals had no extra explanation other than categorized as ”dismissed.”

Ogg Declined Our Request For An Interview

KPRC 2 Investigates asked Ogg for an interview to explain: “Why so many dismissals?”

She declined, saying she won’t comment until her office can do its own analysis of the same numbers that they had already sent KPRC 2 Investigates.

“As an advocate and as a social worker in this community, no, I would not say I have a clearly defined idea as to how they’re handling the cases,” said Donna Amtsberg. Amtsberg is a licensed clinical social worker, clinical asst. professor at the College of Social Work at the University of Houston and is on the board of the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council. She worries a lack of answers may indicate the county needs more resources.

Amtsberg says not being able to track exactly how cases are handled can rob the DA’s office of the chance of discussing possible improvements and providing better answers to the public and most importantly, survivors.

She said domestic violence cases are very complicated because the survivor at one point said ‘I love you,’ to the defendant.

“This is a criminal that I lived with, this is a criminal, that at some point or another, we shared a household,” said Amtsberg.

She also said the public needs to define transparency in these cases. Meaning there needs to be a discussion in regards to how data can be used to improve our overall system of prosecuting domestic violence cases. She also said if there’s no understanding of why cases are being handled the way they are then survivors don’t feel they are heard.

“They don’t feel the system is transparent, nor is it supportive of them, said Amtsberg.

Jacklyn Guerra is the manager of Legal Advocacy Services at the Houston Area Women’s Center. She can’t comment on the DA’s office, but provides insight into why cases may end in a dismissal.

“Justice looks different for every single victim,” said Guerra. “99% of our survivors that walk in through our doors or call our hotline are experiencing financial abuse.”

A lot of survivors worry they can’t pay the bills or feed their children if their abuser goes to prison, so they don’t pursue criminal charges. Another reason is fear of what the person will do.

“‘Are they going to let him out? Is he going to come back and retaliate? Is the violence going to increase?’” said Guerra.

COVID and Domestic Violence

COVID also had a major impact. There were no trials for most of 2020, cases got backed up, and some survivors couldn’t find safe harbor in shelters or with family.

“Having to see their perpetrator again, having to see his family again, having to be cross-examined. All that plays a role,” said Guerra.

How to Get Help

hawc.org

Domestic Violence Hotline: 713-528-2121

Sexual Assault Hotline: 713-528-RAPE (7273)

avda-tx.org

713-224-9911

Twitter: @AVDA_TX


About the Authors:

Award-winning broadcast journalist covering local, regional, national and international stories. Recognized in the industry for subject matter expertise including: Legal/Court Research, the Space Industry, Education, Environmental Issues, Underserved Populations and Data Visualization.

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”