Domestic violence cases often a challenge to prosecute

At 8:51 a.m., there was a knock at the door of Eve Kemple’s office.

“A domestic violence victim from last night is in the lobby, and she wants to talk to someone,” said Dolores Moseley, one of two victim advocates in the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office.

In a few minutes, the victim walked in, a tissue in one hand, and started telling her story: Her ex-boyfriend won’t leave her alone. He calls her 20 or more times in a row, sends her text messages, takes her keys so she can’t leave, comes to her apartment unwanted. The night before, she said, he’d kicked and punched her car when she called police on him.

“I’m upset with myself because I was nice enough to give him a second chance,” the woman said.

For Kemple, 45, the local prosecutor who specializes in domestic violence crimes, it was to be the first of several encounters that day with a victim. Before the day ended, she would argue against another victim’s request to go see her husband at the jail and would see another case crumble before her eyes in court as a victim claimed to have forgotten almost everything she had told police.

Charges in domestic cases are frequently dropped, and recent crimes in the area, including a beating that led to the death of a repeat victim, have raised questions about how well the criminal justice system deals with domestic violence.

But Kemple and her boss, Dist. Atty. Charles Branson, say one thing the public rarely sees is just how tough the cases can be, given the complex relationships involved and some victims’ unwillingness to testify.

They say they’re making every effort to contact victims early on and help them understand what to expect in court, but that often the case goes only as far as the victim is willing to take it.

Kemple has two teenage children and has been a widow the past 12 years. For the record, she says – and people do ask her – it was not an abusive relationship. She graduated from law school in 2003 and went to work in the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s Office before coming to Douglas County last year.

On a typical morning, she reviews the list of people who were arrested overnight for domestic violence and are in jail awaiting formal charges. She has until about 12:30 p.m. to review the police report, research the parties’ history, try to contact the victim by phone and make a decision on what charges to file.

Usually there are two or three such people in custody, she said, but on this morning, there weren’t any.

On most mornings, there also are trials to prepare for and court hearings to handle.

Dropping charges

Two or three times per month, Kemple said, a victim drops by – most commonly to try to have charges dropped.

In the case of the victim who dropped in on this day, the ex-boyfriend hadn’t been arrested. The woman wanted to know what to do and what charges he might face.

Kemple sipped a Diet Coke as she listened to a roughly half-hour story of the pair’s relationship and the man’s escalating pattern of intimidation. Then she gave what she called “my little stalking lecture.”

The main point of it was this: Don’t give him any sense of satisfaction for his efforts. Never answer his calls, even if it’s one out of 50 or one in 100.

Eventually, he’ll look for someone else. Have a plan in place for personal safety, and try not to go out alone.

Kemple reviewed the possible charges that could be filed – misdemeanor damage to property, phone harassment – and gave her information about getting a restraining order.

“Unfortunately, law enforcement can’t keep you safe. You get your restraining order; that piece of paper won’t keep you safe,” Kemple said. “You need to be really, really smart.”

‘Call me’

At 2:10 p.m., Kemple was in the courtroom in the basement of the Judicial & Law Enforcement Center. A woman stood at the podium next to her husband, who was wearing a green jail jumpsuit after being arrested for a domestic violence charge. The woman told Judge Michael Malone she wanted to be able to visit him at the jail, despite an order that they have no contact.

Kemple opposed the request, citing a concern for the woman’s safety and prior cases involving the couple.

But Malone said he would lift the no-contact order for as long as the man stayed in jail.

As the woman walked out of the courtroom, she turned to her husband and gestured, “Call me.”

Hostile witness

At 2:23 p.m., Kemple called a victim to the witness stand in a different case. According to a police report, she and her ex-boyfriend got in a physical fight in July after the man had stayed out all night and she told him to pack his bags. At the time, Officer Larry Hamilton testified, the woman told police he had flicked a lighted cigarette at her, pushed her onto the bed, slapped and struck her, choked her for about 20 seconds and said, “I’ll kill you.” She even gave a written statement to police at the time that described much of the incident.

But in court, she testified that she didn’t remember what happened – just that they had a fight. Looking at the written statement, she admitted it was hers but said she didn’t remember the events.

Eventually, Judge Malone declared her a “hostile witness,” which allowed Kemple to ask more leading questions than normally would be allowed.

At the end of the hearing, Malone found there was enough evidence for the man to stand trial, even though there were “certain weaknesses” in the case.

In the hallway afterward, Kemple said she had the choice between going to trial, and likely losing, or working out a plea.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “What’s clear is that she’s very unpredictable and that she’s obviously not going to cooperate.”