The King County Sheriff’s Office disbanded its Domestic Violence Investigations Unit in 2009 due to budget cuts, but since the unit was re-formed in 2015, prosecutors have so far this year noticed a spike in the number of felony cases being referred for charges.
When Frederick Hill III is sentenced next month for breaking into his girlfriend’s house in July 2014 and repeatedly assaulting her for three hours as he pinned her to the floor, prosecutors will recommend he spend more than 16 years in prison.
Hill was initially charged with misdemeanor assault, but a jury found him guilty of first-degree burglary and unlawful imprisonment — both felonies — after Detective Robin Ostrum reviewed evidence in the case following her assignment last year to the King County sheriff’s newly re-established Domestic Violence Investigations (DVI) Unit.
After noting a slow downward trend over the past decade, King County prosecutors so far this year have seen a 20 percent increase in cases involving felony domestic-violence charges, compared to the same period in 2015. Nearly a third of that increase can be directly attributed to work done by Ostrum and her partner, Detective Ben Wheeler, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor David Martin, who heads the prosecutor’s domestic-violence unit.
When the Sheriff’s Office disbanded its DVI unit following a $10 million budget cut in 2009, Martin said, the number of felony domestic-violence cases referred by deputies to his office dropped by 200 within the first year. With the unit’s return, Martin is seeing those numbers rebound.
Cases that don’t meet requirements for a felony charge are sent to municipal or district courts for misdemeanor prosecutions, he said.
“The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is often a matter of context,” Martin said.
Often, domestic-violence incidents might not appear to be serious enough to warrant a felony charge, he said. But a skilled detective can understand “what is really going on in a relationship” and earn enough trust for victims “to share the really dark stuff in their lives.”
That’s why it’s so important to have dedicated domestic-violence units, which allow detectives to focus on investigations in which victims are sometimes hostile to police and frequently recant, Martin said. Cases are often complicated by emotion and poverty, and injuries aren’t always visible, particularly in assaults involving strangulation, the most frequently charged domestic-violence felony in King County.
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Domestic violence also represents a much larger threat to community safety since someone convicted of a felony offense is more likely to commit crimes against acquaintances or strangers. And often, abusers have hurt a long string of victims over the course of many years.
For example, Hill, 49, has prior convictions for misdemeanor domestic-violence assault and violating a misdemeanor protection order, court records show. Soon, he is expected to stand trial for allegedly beating and raping another girlfriend in a Kent motel room over three days in April 2015.
Citing academic research into statewide recidivism rates, Martin said a conviction for a felony domestic-violence offense is “the single greatest predictor of future violent crime,” eclipsing even robbery and kidnapping convictions.
Sheriff John Urquhart put it another way: “Somebody willing to injure someone they purport to love is willing to do just about anything.”
That knowledge is what compelled Urquhart to lobby the Metropolitan King County Council for $872,000 last year to re-establish the DVI unit. The council has already agreed to carry over funds for the DVI unit into the next budget cycle, said Urquhart, who was elected sheriff in 2012.
Though there isn’t money to expand the unit, Urquhart said he plans to formally offer the unit’s services to the 12 cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Office for police services.
“It’s something I intend to do going forward because it’s been so successful,” he said.
But the two detectives and their supervisor, Sgt. Scott Garnett, are working to maximize manpower, training close to 100 patrol deputies in the past year on investigative techniques when they respond to domestic-violence calls. That includes engaging victims in wider-ranging conversations about their day-to-day situations instead of focusing solely on the incident that brought a deputy to their door.
“Sometimes, if you would’ve asked two more questions, it would have changed everything,” elevating a misdemeanor case to a felony, Wheeler said.
Building a solid case — photographing injuries, documenting “excited utterances,” requesting recordings of 911 calls, obtaining medical records and tracking down witnesses — increases the likelihood of a successful prosecution, even if a victim later refuses to testify, the detectives said.
They’re basic investigative steps that become essential given that studies show 60 to 80 percent of domestic-violence victims recant their allegations, sometimes vacillating between cooperating and recanting several times during the course of a case. Many have conflicting feelings about their abusers and have been so worn down by manipulation and isolation that they can’t see a way out. Money is also a major consideration.
Deputies are also being trained to recognize the signs a victim has been strangled, which can be difficult to detect because in more than 50 percent of such cases there are no obvious signs of injury, Ostrum said.
“Sometimes the bruises never show up, but that doesn’t mean there’s not severe internal trauma,” she said. “The line between being strangled to the point of unconsciousness and dying is literally seconds.”
Wheeler said it’s gratifying to help victims leave an abusive relationship and change their lives.
He cites the case of Quasim Yar-Mohammad, 25, who was conditionally released from jail in December while he was being investigated for repeatedly punching and kicking his girlfriend in the face and head after she had asked him to help take care of their 3-year-old son.
The victim recanted the accusations, but when she later showed up in court to have a no-contact order against Yar-Mohammad lifted, she had a fresh black eye. She eventually agreed to give a statement to Wheeler about her prolonged abuse, and he had Yar-Mohammad booked back into custody in February for violating conditions of his release, jail and court records show.
In May, Yar-Mohammad pleaded guilty to four counts of third-degree assault domestic violence and was sentenced to five years in prison. His victim is in safe housing and now moving on with her life.
According to Martin, Wheeler’s work on the case made the difference between Yar-Mohammad being released from jail within a few days of his guilty plea and serving prison time.
“A patrol deputy may only have half an hour to hear your story,” Wheeler said. “We have the time and the privilege to do this work.”