Tarrant County seeks harsher punishment in ‘intimate partner violence’ cases

January 9, 2018

A father’s hopes for what his little girl could become are boundless.

“The sky was the limit. We used to talk about her actually being president,” Paul Morris said of his daughter, Desiree, known to the family as Nesi.

Morris imagined it all for Nesi, who he said was funny, driven and challenging, as daughters often are.”She was stubborn and hard-headed and I loved her for it,” he said.

But all that Morris pictured for his bright-eyed girl would not come to be. In 2016, Grand Prairie police said Nesi’s ex-boyfriend, who was under investigation at the time for assaulting her, took her life, then took his own. She was just 17.

“She was shot three times in the chest,” her father said. “Dumped in a field behind an apartment complex.”

Authorities said Nesi was one of 16 people in Tarrant County killed by their intimate partners in 2016 alone. In 2017, it was just as bad. More than 30 people have died in the past two years in Tarrant County at the hands of their intimate partners.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a subset of domestic violence. While domestic violence includes all family members, IPV deals specifically with violence between spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, co-parents and lovers.

It was cases like Nesi’s that caught the attention of Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson.

“Tarrant County has a higher rate of IPV homicides and instances than throughout the US,” she said.

Wilson said she had no clue just how pervasive this kind of violence was in the county until she took office.

“When you actually get the data and see the numbers, it’s something we can’t ignore,” she said.

And so they’re not. One year ago, the DA’s office launched an IPV unit, in which attorneys and investigators are specifically focusing on and going aggressively after these cases. It’s a big change, they say, from how things had been done in the past.

Allenna Bangs is the deputy chief attorney of the new unit.

“A lot of these people have been through the system before and process before,” Bangs explained. “So when a victim calls and says I don’t want to press charges, I want the charges to go away, it’s surprising to them to hear well, that’s not going to happen, we’re going to pursue this regardless.”

Bangs said victims are often pressured by their partners, who are also the defendants, to drop the charges.

“So do you feel like you’re going after far more cases than you had in the past?” we asked Bangs.

“Certainly,” she said.

In 2017, they handled more than 600 cases. The DA’s office says 98.6 percent of those cases resulted in a finding of guilt and punishment for the defendant. Punishment is the key, they said — research shows punishment is vital in ending the cycle of violence.

“When they realize it’s not going away, in fact you might be going to prison, and in fact, I might take this case to a jury trial,” Bangs said, “the hope is they realize they need to change their behavior.”

Bangs and Wilson both believe that setting that example will eventually help prevent would-be domestic abusers from becoming violent.

Kathryn Jacob, President of SafeHaven in Tarrant County, the county’s service provider for domestic violence victims, said beat cops are telling her the change is already happening.

“When an arrest is made, and the offender’s in the car, they say ‘what county are we in?'” she said. “I think eventually what will happen is word will spread that Tarrant County doesn’t put up with this.”

Jacob said the alternative is unacceptable.

“The idea that the last thing that a victim will see is the barrel of a gun or an angry hand or a scary set of eyes is not the way anyone should die,” she said.

Paul Morris looks at old photos of his daughter Nesi to distract him from the pain he still feels. “She was always smiling,” he said. “Always smiling.”

And while he feels the system let down his daughter, he hopes these changes will help protect others who still have dreams to fulfill.

Click here for the National Domestic Violence Hotline