In Duluth, complexities cloud domestic assault prosecution, affect outcomes
Natasha Korby told police her ex-boyfriend grabbed her arms and slammed her against a laundry sink during an early morning argument.
He had been drinking, she alleged, and became angry when she told him she wanted to stop seeing him. The police report says that as she tried to leave his home, he pushed her down a flight of stairs.
Korby drove to a friend's house around 4 a.m., aching from the fall and the fresh bruises.
It took the 24-year-old Duluth woman two days to summon the resolve to go to authorities, who investigated the incident and then cited the man for misdemeanor domestic assault. Six months later, a judge ordered him to complete a batterer's intervention program, be screened for chemical dependency and to avoid contact with Korby.
If he meets these conditions the case will be dropped and his record will be clear.
"It's a slap on the face to me, and a slap on the wrist to him," Korby said in an interview.
A News Tribune review of more than 400 completed misdemeanor domestic assault cases shows nearly two out of every three people the city prosecuted for that crime received just unsupervised probation, if any punishment at all. That happened in cases where victims feared for their lives and in cases where police noted visible signs of injury, like fresh facial bruises and bleeding wounds.
What can seem like clear-cut cases on paper can be muddied when prosecutors take them on. Investigators often have little more to go on than differing accounts between two people. Immediate needs like housing and child care can outweigh pursuing legal justice for many victims. Offenders are able to draw out the legal process to their advantage and often see charges dropped if they comply with court conditions like counseling and chemical dependency treatment.
In Duluth, just 9 percent of these cases resulted in domestic assault convictions in recent years, which is comparable to other cities across Minnesota, court data shows.
This is in the birthplace of the award-winning Duluth Model, an organizing method that has become synonymous with domestic assault response. Here, it links together law enforcement, advocates and the court system to keep victims safe, hold offenders accountable and prevent further violence.
It's a model that tries to put victims at the center, but some still feel left out.
"I felt so bad for saying something," Korby said. "I got to a point in the process where I wanted to take it all back. Because then everything in my life would be normal again."
City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said his office stands by its record because each case is complex.
"We have put a lot of time and effort into every one of those cases," he said. "We also acknowledge we can do better, and we strive to do better every day."
A picture of success
In 2017, a man was accused of punching his girlfriend in the face — an act witnessed by another person. The victim told Duluth police she was assaulted by the man a few times a month. "She was most frightened by (him) a couple of years ago when he swung a metal pipe at her and broke her left cheekbone," according to a police report.
The man, charged with misdemeanor domestic assault, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. But because he served 60 days in jail for another misdemeanor offense, there was no jail time to hold over his head through probation, said Mary Asmus, a prosecutor in the city attorney's office. He saw no further punishment.
That's a case the city attorney's office considers a success.
Their definition includes stays of adjudication and convictions for domestic assault or disorderly conduct. A stay of adjudication means a guilty plea is entered, but a judge will dismiss it with no conviction if certain conditions are followed. The city negotiated those outcomes 60 percent of the time between 2015 and 2017.
Asmus, who handled a quarter of those domestic assault cases, said that rate "is not horrendous, not horrible, given the difficulty of these cases."
But not everyone with a stake in domestic violence policy agrees that a disorderly conduct conviction — the most common result for these cases across the state — is a good outcome for victims. It doesn't always show a connection to domestic violence, and can't be enhanced in court to a more severe domestic violence-related charge, like a gross misdemeanor or felony.
"When I read some of the really horrifying things someone has done and see a disorderly conduct conviction, it does not make me happy," said Safia Khan, an advocate for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
Asmus said she counts a disorderly conduct conviction as a victory because the offender can be put on supervised probation and sent to treatment. Yet that only happened in a third of the domestic violence cases that ended with such a conviction.
"Hopefully we are picking out the appropriate people to receive a second chance," she said.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said a disorderly conduct conviction in a domestic violence case "minimizes the conduct," and he encourages his staff to avoid it.
"When we resolve a case short of trial, we want to get a good admission about what the offender did," Rubin said. "I want an admission to the act of assault on the record."
'Change who he is as a man'
Rubin's office secured misdemeanor domestic assault convictions in 30 percent of cases in the past three years, according to court data. Duluth's rate in that time was 9 percent.
But victim advocates and legal experts say conviction rates are not a good measure of justice.
"We're less concerned with a conviction, more concerned with the sentencing supervision," said Scott Miller, interim director of Duluth's Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, which oversees the batterer's intervention program that abusers are often court-ordered to attend. "Putting him in jail isn't going to change who he is as a man."
Restorative justice and rehabilitation are crucial to ending domestic violence, said Aaron Zimmerman, the director of development and communications at the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis.
"The reality of that violence is a learned behavior — they use it as a way to maintain power and control in a relationship," he said.
There are times when jail is warranted to protect the victim, Zimmerman said, but it's education and personal accountability that can address systemic violence.
Miller's group has studied the effectiveness of its work — recidivism is lower among men who complete the batterer's intervention program compared to those who don't.
"The ultimate goal is safety; we want him to be a different guy," he said. "If this is a first domestic arrest, the mentality is to get him into programming."
Yet Duluth prosecutors and judges only manage to send a third of those charged with domestic assault to programming. Though domestic assault cases include family member and roommate violence, the majority involve men attacking their women partners.
The Minnesota Coalition of Battered Women says domestic violence can escalate to domestic homicide if left unchecked. In 2017 at least 19 women in Minnesota were killed by their partners, and more than half of those cases involved perpetrators with a history of domestic violence.
"If you really want to prevent future violence you need to effectively address perpetrator behavior," said Liz Richards, head of the coalition. "It's not just about conviction, but conviction with an effective sentence."
The city attorney's office says the wishes of victims are the guiding force in domestic violence cases.
But in Korby's case, the only contact with the attorney working on her case happened if she reached out herself, she said. The length of the legal process took its toll.
"I was depressed. I wasn't eating. I wanted to kill myself," she said.
This spring, Duluth hired victim advocate Ragan Balzer with state grant money that will last two years. Balzer spends her time reaching out to victims and guiding them through the legal process. It has been several years since the city attorney's office had someone in that role.
"The focus on victims makes a huge difference," City Attorney Johnson said. "Even with Ragan it's not perfect, but it helps as we move forward."
Duluth police arrest all people suspected of domestic assault as long as there is probable cause, a policy that has been in place for decades but is not common practice in Minnesota. Probable cause means there are reasonable grounds to make an arrest. Officers also ask victims a series of risk assessment questions and write detailed reports that can reach a dozen pages long. Police do this even when there is no arrest or resulting charges.
"We want to do really good police reports and investigations and then we want to refer them on to our prosecutors to do their work," said Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken.
Police refer most domestic violence victims to Safe Haven, a resource center and shelter in Duluth that served 1,861 people in 2017, most of whom used legal advocacy services. As part of the Duluth Model, Safe Haven advocates review every domestic assault police report filed.
Safe Haven says a successful legal outcome is to get offenders into some kind of reform programming, even if it means there's no conviction. That's a success for many victims, too, said advocate Heather Drees, "especially if they don't have to participate in the process."
Yet once these cases reach prosecutors, what seems like an easy conviction in a police report can be difficult to prove, Miller said.
"There is the criticism of, 'We gave you this case on a silver platter, and it turned into a mud pie.' And there are lots of ways this happens. Things go south," he said.
One 2017 case involved a man pounding on the door of his estranged wife's home with a metal pole, screaming for her to let him in. It was witnessed by a neighbor and was a violation of a protection order.
The woman told police her husband had sent her death threats through email and in the past had beaten her to the point of broken teeth, a broken arm and a shattered tailbone, receiving documented medical treatment for each.
She told police her husband had access to firearms and once attempted to strangle her. She had called police in the past but did not report the abuse for fear the violence would worsen.
The man was convicted of contempt of court for violating the protection order, and his misdemeanor domestic assault charge was dismissed. He was placed on unsupervised probation and was not sent to the batterer's program.
Asmus, who didn't prosecute that case, declined to discuss the reason behind that outcome, and the outcome of the Korby case, citing victim privacy. She said the office recognizes victims aren't always satisfied with outcomes.
Prosecutors talk to witnesses, study evidence and look into criminal and relationship histories. Dealing largely with first-time offenders, they consider consequences to jobs, housing, custody of children and even the ability to hunt.
"It does not help the situation if we force somebody — maybe they have a child together, are married — if we force the offender to lose his job and his house," Johnson said.
Johnson says his office needs a higher burden of proof than police, and sometimes there isn't enough evidence, or a victim willing to testify. The four-person office juggled 35,000 cases from 2015-17, of which roughly 500 were for domestic assault.
Asmus said crimes that have victims are prioritized.
"We want the public to know we are carefully considering every case," she said.
Hannah Wojtowicz helped Korby in the early morning hours after the incident, photographing her injuries and encouraging her to call police. A victim of domestic violence, Wojtowicz said staying silent would only make things worse.
But the legal outcome wasn't enough, Wojtowicz said, because the ex-boyfriend wasn't being monitored.
"They could have done more," Korby said.
Her ex-boyfriend, who the News Tribune isn't naming because he wasn't convicted, isn't happy with the outcome either. He disputes much of Korby's story.
"Yes, I was angry. I wasn't screaming and yelling ... I said, 'Just get out of here,'" he said. "She said I pushed her down a flight of stairs. That's my back steps ... I went to go open the door and she got aggressive and got mad at me. Just leave."
He doesn't think he should have been arrested.
"All it took was bruises. That's all it took," he said. "How can you prove where they come from?"
He said he didn't take the matter further in court because the system is "skewed toward the female side for sure." He added he didn't agree with being sent to the batterer's program, but he felt that his input "could help someone else."
Korby and her ex-boyfriend attend the same college, and the protection order doesn't extend to campus. That's caused panic attacks, Korby said. She's failed classes. She still flinches when approached from behind. She was notified after he completed the abuse intervention program, but will never know if it made a difference, she said.
"It's over and done with and I can move on with my life," she said. "But I still worry."
Editor's note: The News Tribune typically does not identify victims of domestic violence, but Korby agreed to be interviewed to help shed light on a topic often misunderstood by the public.