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VOL. 124 | NO. 221 | Tuesday, November 10, 2009

DA’s Office Changes Domestic Violence Procedures

By Bill Dries

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With a General Sessions domestic violence court now up and running, the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office is changing the way it handles the cases of family and spousal violence.

Last week, the office began assigning a single prosecutor to handle a particular case as it makes its way through the court system. It is called “vertical prosecution.”

“One prosecutor or possibly a team of two prosecutors will handle that case from beginning to end no matter where it is in the system,” District Attorney General Bill Gibbons told The Daily News. “I think it’s going to make a big difference in how those cases are handled.”

At least since 2006, the DA’s office has handled 4,000 cases a year alleging domestic violence. About 500 go to the Shelby County grand jury for possible indictment and from there to a criminal court. Most are resolved in General Sessions Court without grand jury review or trial.

Cracking down

The domestic violence unit in the DA’s office, headed by Assistant District Attorney Karen Cook, was already handling the General Sessions caseload.

“It will be anybody who is arrested after Nov. 1,” she said. “If we don’t dispose of them in General Sessions, we will take them to Criminal Court and try them. I assign the arraignments to my prosecutors each morning and they’re the same happy face that the defendant is going to see in criminal court.”

The move from horizontal prosecution, where a different prosecutor was involved at each stop, is part of the Operation Safe Community anticrime plan Gibbons and others in the criminal justice system committed to in 2007.

Gibbons agreed that additional prosecutors would be committed to vertical prosecution of cases involving violent crime and repeat offenders. First-degree murder, major gang, child abuse and white-collar crimes are also vertically prosecuted. Gibbons estimates it will take 24 additional assistants to make the full conversion.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “This is a major leap. But we still have a number of aggravated robbery cases that are horizontally prosecuted.”

Support system

The change, for now, won’t affect how part-time prosecutors handle domestic violence cases in the Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett and Millington municipal courts.

In the past three years, Gibbons has been able to hire 10 new prosecutors. Six are funded by Shelby County government. Three are funded by state government and one is funded through a federal grant.

When he got the last two positions, Gibbons committed them to bring the DV unit up to 10 prosecutors and made the switch to vertical prosecution.

Cook said the specially trained prosecutors are an important asset for domestic violence victims.

“The victims need to know the same person … so there’s some trust and rapport just because of the fragile nature of the situation,” she said.

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