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In Pinellas domestic violence cases, charges often dropped

Four times a day, police in Pinellas County arrest someone on a felony domestic violence charge — for punching his wife, choking his girlfriend, or some other violent act.

But on average, only one of those four people gets prosecuted. The county's prosecution rate for felony domestic violence crimes was just 24 percent last year, and 19 percent the year before that, according to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's own figures.

Most of the time, when a man or woman gets arrested in a felony domestic violence crime in Pinellas County, the charges are dropped.

Domestic violence advocates say they have been urging Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe to take a more aggressive stance against domestic violence, because of statistics like these.

Their calls intensified in recent weeks, after a Clearwater man who was released on a $1,000 bail in a misdemeanor case was arrested two days later on a charge of murdering the girlfriend who was seeking protection from him. McCabe later said his office made mistakes in the bail hearing.

"It's shameful and frightening," said Wendy Loomas, chairwoman of the county's Domestic Violence Task Force, who stressed the need for a broad community response to the problem.

McCabe said he's attacking domestic violence as aggressively as he can, but also strongly believes he can't prosecute some cases because, "you should not drag somebody through the system unless you think you have enough admissible evidence to convict them."

Putting these figures into context is not easy. Two statewide groups say they're not aware of any county-by-county effort to compile statistics like the ones the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney keeps, and even that office compiles them only for Pinellas, not Pasco.

But in general, state attorneys say these prosecutions are some of the toughest they face, because of all the psychological reasons that make domestic violence so vicious in the first place.

"They pose unique legal and factual problems because many times you are prosecuting against the will of the victims," said Bill Cervone, the state attorney based in Gainesville and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

"There are many cases where you simply have a brick wall in front of you and you can't meet the legal requirements to go forward," he said.

Experts say batterers — it's usually a man against a woman, but not always — rule by intimidation. They isolate their victims, prevent them from working and stop them from contacting family members — which makes it hard to leave. They threaten. They turn nice, and threaten again.

This can leave a woman in fear, even after her abuser has been arrested, said Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse. And it can lead her to refuse to testify, or deny the crime altogether.

So Osmundson understands why prosecutors have a difficult time taking these cases to court. But, she said, that's no excuse. She and other advocates say prosecutors should take an aggressive stance that has been used in other areas, which looks like this:

A woman calls police because her boyfriend hits her. By the time police show up, the woman is already saying nothing happened, please go away.

But maybe: Neighbors heard the screams; the 911 call was recorded; an officer saw her bloody nose. In a case like that, "I think there's adequate evidence for them to prosecute a case even without a victim's testimony," Osmundson said. After all, advocates say, murder cases get prosecuted all the time, and those victims don't testify either.

McCabe has a quick response to this suggestion: "We do that, yes." As long as there is enough outside evidence in a case, "you can proceed without the victim," McCabe said.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's office also will prosecute some cases, "even though the victim may choose not to participate," said spokesman Mark Cox. And so does Cervone, even though "it does put us in a role where we sometimes are trying to force things that the victim doesn't want."

But in many cases this doesn't work, the prosecutors said, because the woman's testimony provides most of the evidence. Take her statement away, and the case goes away also.

This is one of the reasons the Pinellas prosecution rate is so low, McCabe said. "A significant factor is having cases that have no evidence but for the victim, and the victim changing the story, recanting under oath, saying it didn't happen that way."

And in a case like that, he can't move forward, McCabe said.

"I believe there are some folks that think I should just go ahead and charge people and see what happens. … I'm not going to charge someone with a felony unless I'm confident that I've got enough evidence to convict them."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@sptimes.com.

In Pinellas domestic violence cases, charges often dropped 02/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 10:15pm]
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