Plano, Texas was the site of one of the largest mass killings this past week. Thirty-two year old Spencer Hight shot his estranged wife and seven of her friends at her Plano, Texas home, who were gather to watch a Dallas Cowboys football game. The couple was in the midst of a divorce, and while the motive is not yet confirmed by law enforcement, friends and family have speculated that he was upset that his wife had moved on. Their sixth wedding anniversary was set for the following day. Seven people died as a result, with one currently in intensive care.
Crimes of domestic violence are some of the most heartbreaking and difficult crimes for prosecutors to handle. Often, the couples are known to law enforcement, or have been through the court system before. There are often children involved – sometimes in deadline crimes — meaning that even if the children aren’t actually physically hurt by the violence, the environment in which they have lived in, or the death of one or both of their parents, can be draining on them and taxing on the children’s services system. It also perpetuates the problem: men who, as children, witness domestic violence, are three to four times more likely to become perpetrators of domestic violence themselves. Worst of all, sometimes there is no one left to prosecute for their crimes. It affects people of all backgrounds, races and education levels. And of course, states must fight the stigma against female-perpetrated violence, particularly on their male partners.
Domestic violence is also a widespread and vast problem. Some statistics show that American women who were murdered by their partners is nearly double that of American troops killed in combat within the same time period. It raises its head in different ways – of course, one common method of abuse is pure physical abuse, or beatings. There is also emotional abuse and financial abuse, when someone cuts their partner off financially, rendering them totally dependent on them. This occurs in 98 percent of physical abuse cases, but unfortunately, this is not a crime. Stalking is also often a feature of domestic violence, particularly in physically abusive relationships where the abused partner got the courage to leave. It is also underreported – only about a quarter of domestic incidents are reported to the police annually, leaving it difficult for law enforcement and the state to provide aid and build cases against abusers. Women who seek treatment for the physical wounds they endure are also afraid to speak out or report it. In fact, about three-quarters of victims do not cooperate with law enforcement.
The unwillingness of abuse victims to speak out against their perpetrators has led to a technique called ‘evidence-based prosecution,’ which relies on pure evidence, rather than testimony from the victim, to find the defendant guilty. This is a more difficult way to prove a case, but nevertheless, can be effective. It’s a fairly new practice, contextually speaking as well. In the 1980s, about 5% of domestic abuse cases with injuries were prosecuted, but thankfully, as of 2010, the rate was much higher, with some jurisdictions close to an 80% prosecution rate. The types of evidence most frequently used in these kinds of prosecutions are 911 calls, medical records, police reports, court records such as restraining orders, taped interviews with the victims, and even child witness statements. A Supreme Court case, Crawford v. Washington, changed the ability of prosecutor’s to effectively use this tactic by limiting the use of hearsay statements at trial. There has since been a movement amongst prosecutors to encourage police officers and first responders to investigate domestic violence immediately, in order to gather as much direct evidence as possible.
Crimes of domestic violence are emotionally trying, and can be difficult to handle. Defending against these cases can be excruciating work, as these kinds of crimes are seen more morally reprehensible than others, particularly if there are children involved. As states become more focused on punishing perpetrators of these crimes, perhaps it is stopping the cycle of violence – crimes are reportedly going down the last decade. However, it is still an epidemic. Some statistics say that a woman is physically abused every 9 seconds in the country. The legal system must be progressive and aggressive in stopping this epidemic.