Dallas court focuses attention on domestic violence risks

DALLAS When most Dallas County felony courts are wrapping up for the weekend, this one is just getting started.

It's a special court for high-risk family violence offenders and the first of its kind in Texas. The men in it have shot, stabbed, strangled or committed other violent acts against the women in their lives.

'A lot of these guys are getting probation because the state doesn't have a strong case, because the complainant is not being cooperative,' said State District Judge Rick Magnis. 'They're not getting probation because the state or the prosecutor thinks that they deserve it, or that they're not high-risk. It's because this is the only disposition they can come up with that he'll accept.'

Magnis hopes to prevent the women in the lives of these men from meeting a violent end, such as in the highly publicized killings of Deanna Cook or Karen Cox Smith.

Cook's family found her murdered in August 2012, two days after she called Dallas 911 pleading for help. Her ex-husband is accused of killing her.

Cox's husband received a 50-year jail sentence for gunning her down in the UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas parking garage in January 2013.

So far, five men have accepted plea bargains and been assigned to Magnis' program. The plan is to expand to as many as 30.

'These offenders really are different,' Magnis said. 'There's so many lethality issues. So many of the cases where the women die there's been a previous pattern of abuse. If the state for whatever reason is offering them probation, I want to make sure that we're monitoring them and that they don't re-offend or kill someone.'

Every Friday, officials gather in Magnis' 'Jury Deliberation Room' to talk about the status of each of the probationers. What do they need? Are they following the rules? If not, what needs to be done?

One by one, the 12 officials seated around the conference table discussed each of the men this past Friday.

A probation officer explained that one man left his residence at 11:40 p.m. one night and didn't return until 2:40 a.m. His curfew was 9 p.m.

'Is that the only issue with this guy?' Magnis asked.

'Yes,' replied one of the officials, explaining that the man did attend his batterer's intervention class on Thursday night.

'We just need him to account for where he was,' Magnis said.

Officials explained that the next probationer spent a night in jail because he failed to attend court-ordered community service.

'I wanted to make him understand that he's got to do what I say, that he's got to be accountable,' Magnis said. 'So we'll see if that works.'

The other two probationers received a good report.

Last on the list was 'Christopher,' who was newly assigned to the program. In December 2012, he violently attacked his former girlfriend who was 28 weeks pregnant.

According to police reports, he kicked in a door and choked her until she nearly blacked out. He punched her in the stomach and violently shook her, causing her to have contractions.

The woman called police, telling detectives that he had broken her ribs months earlier.

But days later, records show the woman told police that she did not want to pursue criminal charges against him.

'He has a very entitled attitude,' one official said about 'Christopher' during the meeting.

'Let's see if we can change his behavior,' Magnis said.

Magnis, who was elected to the bench in 2006, said he had a case early in his judicial career that drove home the need to take a different approach.

In that case, the offender was in court to plead guilty in a felony family violence case.

'He was sitting in the courtroom with his arm around a woman,' Magnis said. 'When he came up to plead, I discovered that the woman that he was with in the courtroom was the victim. He accepted probation, and the victim asked me to lift the 'no contact' condition and allow them to be together. I said 'No.''

Two days later, the judge received a call.

'He had her barricaded in the house at shotgun point and wasn't going to let her go,' the judge said. 'I realized early on that we had some real problems.'

After the group meets in the jury deliberation room, it's time for Magnis' weekly encounter with each of the men.

One by one, the men approach the bench.

First to approach is the man who violated curfew.

'Looks like you had a night out? Where'd you go?' the judge asked.

'To take the trash out,' the probationer responded.

'Were you taking the trash out for two-and-a-half hours?' Magnis asked.

The probationer admitted that he went to see the mother of his child, but denied that it's the woman he attacked. He told the judge that he's looking for a job.

For violating the terms of his probation, the judge ordered him to do 16 hours of community service before next Friday's court date.

'You're lucky that the sheriff's department really did a roundup and arrested about 230 people in the last couple of days, so the jail is pretty full up, and I don't really want to add to that,' Magnis told the probationer, adding this warning: 'The next time, there's going to be jail time.'

The probationer who spent a night in jail for failing to do his community service hours was next to appear.

This time, the judge offered praise for doing his community service hours.

'Thank you for taking care of all your business,' Magnis told the man. 'I'm impressed. You kind of got a slow start, but you're catching up. I'm really pleased. I've got no issues.'

The other two probationers received nothing but praise from the judge.

'All right, I appreciate you taking care of everything,' Magnis told one of the men. 'It looks like you're doing well. I know it's tough. Keep working it, OK?'

Finally, it was time for 'Christopher' to appear.

He wasn't there.

The judge was not happy. He sent the bailiff into the hallway to say his name three times.

No one answered.

'Let's go ahead and issue a warrant,' the judge said.

Moments later, the probationer showed up. The judge asked him why he's late. He told the judge that he only has one car and he was late because he had to pick up his daughter from school.

'I don't really like it when people are late. Are you working?' the judge asked.

'Christopher' replies that he doesn't have a job.

'Well, then you should be able to do 16 hours of community service for me before next Friday,' the judge instructed.

Magnis also ordered that a device to detect alcohol use be put on the man; that he take a drug test on the spot; and that he begin batterer's intervention classes.

'I need to know where you are and what you're doing,' the judge told him.

Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place, believes this program will save lives.

'This is a different type of program, because it's an after-the-fact program... after they're put on probation, when they think they might be able to get away with something, when they they've not had to go to prison,' she said. 'It's a tight box for them.'

The probation department provides staff members to keep tabs on the men. The Family Place, a women's shelter, conducts batterer's intervention classes.

Recovery Healthcare does the electronic and substance abuse monitoring. Genesis Women's Shelter works with the victims.

The Dallas Police Department's family violence unit provides a detective to make home visits or do whatever is needed from the law enforcement end.

If the men in Magnis' court don't follow the rules, there is a stick: Prosecutors will file a motion to revoke, the men will go before a different judge for a probation revocation hearing, and then it's likely they will go to prison.

'I'm taking a big chance with my career,' Magnis said. 'If I have one of these guys go off the reservation and hurt someone, I could find myself in trouble. But I'm willing to take that chance because I think it's important.'

E-mail teiserer@wfaa.com


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