Violent crime cases hit five-year high, according to latest statistics from Douglas County DA; stats on charges by race also released
photo by: Douglas County District Attorney's office
If it seems like you have heard a lot about violent crimes in Lawrence and Douglas County over the past year, your ears are not deceiving you.
The latest numbers from the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office show that it was a busy year for felonies and violent crimes, with sex crimes, batteries, assaults and criminal threats all hitting five-year highs in the county.
The numbers compiled by District Attorney Suzanne Valdez’s office measure the number of cases the office received in 2022, which means some of the cases involved crimes that happened prior to 2022.
It is the case every year that some cases begin in one calendar year but end in another. However, the pandemic slowed down the disposal of some cases, which might account for some of the increased numbers, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said.
But a good portion of the increase is because those are the types of crimes that came through the system, spokeswoman Cheryl Cadue told the Journal-World via email.
“Our office aggressively prosecutes cases that impact public safety,” Cadue said. “When District Attorney Valdez took office in 2021, we faced a backlog created by the pandemic. Law enforcement also increased the number of cases referred for prosecution consideration. The increase in the person charges we pursue reflects how our office has prioritized cases that do the most to promote public safety and justice.”
The result has been some categories of crime that show some big increases. Here’s a look a several:
• Sex crimes in 2022 increased by 21% from a year earlier to a total of 97. That number is up from just 19 in 2019;
• Assaults increased by 62% from a year ago, rising to 91 cases;
• Battery cases increased by 30% to 94 cases, up from 72 a year earlier;
• Criminal threats increased by 54% to 91 cases;
• Cases involving fleeing and eluding law enforcement more than doubled to 42 cases, up from 20 in 2021.
• Domestic violence cases increased 19% to 50 cases.
The number of homicides and robberies have remained fairly consistent over the last five years, according to the report, with a total of 13 homicides or manslaughter charges filed. Robberies have remained consistent averaging around 32 per year, according to the report.
The new five year highs for several categories of violent crime comes at a time when law enforcement is referring fewer overall cases to the district attorney’s office for possible prosecution.
The report says that the office has an average of 3,380 cases referred for charging each year by various law enforcement agencies with a total of 3,312 in 2022 which is an overall drop of 1.8% in cases referred compared to 2021 with 3,375 cases referred and down 7.7% from 2018 with 3589 cases referred.
The report also tracks key demographics about those who are being arrested or charged with crimes. The numbers show cases involving Black individuals as suspects or defendants is higher than it was a few years ago.
Cases referred by law enforcement to the office with Black individuals as alleged perpetrators was at 23.1% in 2022. That’s down from 25.3% in 2021. But both of those numbers are significantly higher than what the county was experiencing at the end of the last decade. In 2018, cases that alleged a crime by a Black individual were at 19.6%. Such cases held basically steady at 19.5% in 2019 and then hit a five-year low of 18.9% in 2020, before rising significantly.
Cases involving white perpetrators continue to comprise the majority of cases referred with an average of 64.5% of cases referred each year, involving white perpetrators. Douglas County’s population is predominately white.
Conviction numbers also show an increase in the number of cases involving Black defendants. There were 158 cases in 2022 involving a conviction of a Black individual. That was the highest number of convictions involving Black defendants in the last five years.
Black defendants comprised 26.3% of all convicted cases in the county in 2022. That percentage also was a five-year high. In the previous four years, the percentage was at or below 23%.
In terms of how cases break down between men and women, the trend of most cases involving males remains largely unchanged. Over the last five years, about 70% of cases have involved male perpetrators.
The report also provides information on how many cases the district attorney’s office disposed of either by gaining a conviction, striking a plea deal, or having the case otherwise be concluded at trial or dismissed.
Those numbers also hit five-year highs.
The office reports that it resolved or disposed of 729 cases total in 2022 which is an increase of 19.5% from 2021, and is the highest in the last five years. According to the report 45.7% of the cases resolved in 2022 were filed in 2021.
The majority of resolved cases ended with defendants entering pleas 72.4% of the time with 528 of the 729 cases resolved ending in pleas. That percentage largely was unchanged from a year ago. Plea deal totals, however, do make up a significantly lower percentage of cases than they did prior to the pandemic, when the office was run by Valdez’s predecessor. In both 2018 and 2019, more than 85% of all cases that were disposed in that year were disposed via plea deals, according to the report.
Defendants generally enter a plea of no contest or guilty admitting in part to the allegations against them in an effort to “throw themselves on the mercy of the court” and in hopes of getting a lighter sentence or that the prosecution will reduce the charges. By entering a plea, a defendant saves the court the cost and time that it would take to go to trial.
An area that has increased under Valdez is cases that have been dismissed by the office due to insufficient evidence or in the “interest of justice,” a discretionary decision to not pursue a case. Both categories were way up in 2021 and 2022. According to the report there were 15 cases in 2021 and 21 cases in 2022 that were dismissed for insufficient evidence while the report lists only 2 in 2019 and does not report any in 2018 and 2020.
There were 25 cases dismissed in the interest of justice in both 2021 and 2022 compared to three in 2020, and five in 2019, with none reported in 2018.
Specialty courts including the Behavioral Health Court and Drug Court also are becoming busier, the statistics show. Such speciality courts had a total of 19 cases resolved, more than doubling from 9 cases each in 2020 and 2021.
Jury trials held in Douglas County in 2022 totaled 13 with the state securing guilty verdicts in 11 of those trials.
In addition to statistics, the report also details prosecutorial initiatives, community outreach efforts, and notes several high profile convictions from 2022. To read the full report go to douglascountyks.org/depts/district-attorney
Annual report improperly lists rape conviction
A Lawrence man was improperly listed as having been convicted of rape by the Douglas County District Attorney’s office in its annual report.
Lee Mitchell Pennington, 34, of Lawrence was convicted by a Douglas County jury of one felony count of aggravated burglary, one felony count of aggravated assault, and one misdemeanor count of stalking, as reported by the Journal-World.
However, in the DA’s first published version of the report it listed Pennington having been convicted of only one crime, rape. Pennington was never charged with rape in connection with the October 30, 2021, incident and thus never convicted of rape. The prosecution charged Pennington with one count of misdemeanor sexual battery before the case went to trial but a Douglas County District judge dismissed the added charge.
When the Journal-World reached out to the office about the error, the office said that the report had been corrected and re-uploaded.
Between June 21 when the office first posted the report and June 23, a revised version of the annual report had replaced the first version and Pennington’s conviction was edited to reflect his burglary and stalking charges and removed the statement about him being convicted of rape.
Despite the first correction, the second edited version of the report again misstated Pennington’s conviction for aggravated assault and said that he was convicted of “aggravated sexual assault” even though there has been no finding of a sexual crime having been committed in Pennington’s case.
The office has since re-posted the report with the corrected conviction after the Journal-World contacted the office again seeking clarification on the “aggravated sexual assault” charge.
Pennington has requested a new trial and has alleged that the prosecution misled the jury at trial. He is next scheduled in court on August 17 to argue several motions regarding his trial and pending sentence.