The Lehigh County District Attorney's Domestic Violence Unit has been expanded and the processing of domestic abuse cases through the court system has been changed to strengthen prosecutors’ and the court’s response to domestic violence cases, according to a Wednesday news release from District Attorney James B. Martin.
The unit, which was started in 1997, initially was staffed by one attorney and one detective,and a second detective was added in 2012. Martin said he recently expanded the unit by adding another attorney.
The unit is now comprised of Chief Deputy District Attorney Tonya Tharp and Deputy District Attorney Ned Muir. Detectives Colleen Gilbert and Ralph Romano are domestic violence case investigators who assist in prosecutions.
All domestic violence cases heard before magisterial district judges are now being funneled to Lehigh County Judge Kelly L. Banach, administrative judge of the court’s criminal division.
The change means that all domestic violence cases will be heard in one courtroom and will be handled by attorneys Tharp and Muir.
Before the reorganization, one attorney in the unit handled all preliminary hearings in domestic abuse cases. Every magisterial district judge was assigned to a Court of Common pleas judge, and the cases were sent to five different judges in the criminal division after they were bound over for court. The cases then were handled by other assistant district attorneys who were assigned to those courtrooms.
“The changes will mean there will be greater continuity in prosecutions, which will benefit victims,” Martin said. “The reorganization takes into account the unique dynamics of domestic violence cases.
“In these types of cases, victims often are extremely vulnerable because they are financially dependent on abusers and have sustained abuse on repeated occasions for many years," Martin continued. "They often are reluctant to report abuse, to testify in court and to follow through with prosecutions because of fear of repercussions and the upheaval it may cause in their lives.
“Many times, the abusers are remorseful after the fact, and the victims believe that the latest abuse may be the last time, at least until it happens again.The sooner we interview them in the process and get to know them and their personal situations, the more likely these victims will be to proceed with court cases.
“The two attorneys in the unit will be able to establish trusting relationships and a rapport with victims that hopefully will translate to successful prosecutions and increased safety and protection for victims.”
Martin said the two attorneys also will be familiar with past domestic violence offenses and repeat offenders.
Martin noted that about 3.7 percent of cases coming into the court system are domestic violence cases. From Jan. 1 to July 18, there were 542 domestic violence cases.
Martin said that homicide cases sometimes are domestic violence related. In 2012, seven homicides were related to domestic violence; in 2013, two; and in 2014, one.
In a coordinated effort to adopt a team approach to handling domestic violence cases, the Adult Probation Department plans to assign two veteran probation officers to “specialty domestic violence caseloads” with reduced general caseloads, according to Chief Adult Probation Officer John Sikora.
“They will have the ability to provide much more intensive supervision of batterers, toprovide ‘in-house’ batterers’ intervention programs similar to anger management but more focused on the domestic violence offense, and to give specialized attention to victims,”Sikora said. The two probation officers will be attending certification training the week of July 28.