D.A. expands services for victims

Orientation to legal process offered in domestic violence cases

After a campaign promising reform in his office’s handling of domestic violence cases, Douglas County Dist. Atty. Charles Branson has taken steps to enhance prosecution and help victims navigate the legal process.

Branson is launching a program to help victims become comfortable with the court process and testifying against their accused abusers.

The new weekly orientation program will bring victims to the courtroom over the lunch hour to help acquaint them with the place, how the trial will proceed and where they and their accuser will sit during testimony. Fliers explaining the program will go out with subpoenas, Branson said.

“It’s incredibly beneficial,” Branson predicted of the new program.

Attorneys will provide the orientation. And the office has two coordinators, Cindy Riling and Dolores Moseley, to assist victims and witnesses through the process.

Defense attorney Ed Collister said that, in theory, the D.A.’s new approach to domestic violence cases wouldn’t affect how defense attorneys handle cases.

“The only thing that would be bad is if it turns into some kind of turf war,” Collister said.

Casey Spense, a Kansas University graduate student in the School of Social Welfare recently finished an internship with Women's Transitional Care Services and the Douglas County District Attorney's office.

Defense attorneys still have to defend the rights of the accused, Collister said, and still have the right to contact victims and witnesses if it seems appropriate.

A bridge

Branson’s office also made use of a Kansas University intern as a bridge to Women’s Transitional Care Services, a shelter for battered women.

Casey Spencer, a graduate student recruited from KU’s School of Social Welfare, served as a liaison between prosecutors and WTCS. Now that Spencer has finished her semester and moved on, Branson said he hopes to continue that newly forged link between agencies using other KU interns.

“We’re desperately seeking another intern,” Branson said.

Spencer accompanied women to court and helped them secure protection orders and sometimes housing, she said.

Branson’s office “would direct them to me,” Spencer said. “I was there.”

Limited prosecutions

According to Kansas Bureau of Investigation statistics, the number of domestic violence-related cases in the county increased from 291 in 2004 to 377 last year.

In 2004, only 58 percent of reported domestic violence incidents resulted in arrests, statistics show, with only some of those landing on the D.A.’s desk.

When the office does receive domestic violence cases, they likely wind up with Assistant Dist. Atty. Eve Kemple, who handles those cases for the county.

Kemple said the chances of prosecution resulting in a prison sentence vary depending on circumstances – whether the crime is a misdemeanor or a felony, whether the victim will testify or whether the victim wants to see an abuser in jail in the first place.

Plea bargains are often struck, with many cases ending in parole or being dropped altogether, raising the possibility that a cycle of abuse, if one exists, will continue.

“There’s only so much the D.A.’s office can do,” Kemple said. “Our hands are tied so much. I can’t keep people safe.”

She said she does what she can, meeting with victims in her office privately and calling them on the phone. But she can’t talk anyone into testifying. Court is a frightening proposition, especially when you don’t know the system and you’re sitting across from an abuser who may try to exact revenge for your words, she said.

“We have to respect where they are,” Kemple said.

Trying to raise awareness

Most involved agree the new changes are baby steps.

Before Spencer left the program, she organized a community-wide panel discussion among the D.A.’s office, WTCS and Kansas Legal Services to address domestic-violence issues.

The idea, Spencer said, was to organize a citywide Domestic Violence Task Force that would better create a web of short-term and long-term services for survivors trying to move on after leaving an abusive situation.

She invited City Commission members and others to the event, which was held at Kansas University. But aside from Branson and select others from the legal community, those who would most likely take charge of organizing a task force, such as city leaders, didn’t show.

“There’s got to be common interest,” Spencer said after her tenure at the D.A.’s office ended.

But interest in the idea still exists in both WTCS and the D.A.’s office. Now, with increased communication likely to continue, the idea may yet take flight.

“We are at the threshold of some big, communitywide changes,” Kemple said.