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Domestic abuse convictions often precede heinous crimes

The Texas City man charged Friday with capital murder in connection with the deaths of three children in an apartment building had twice been convicted of assault causing bodily injury to a family member, according to court records.

Junaid Mehmood’s arrest is just the latest instance in Galveston County of a man with a documented history of family violence later being charged with more heinous crimes.

Another high-profile case is that of Clint Veron Felder, 47, of League City, who was charged with murder in May after being accused of shooting his girlfriend to death after a daylong argument, according to a probable cause affidavit. Felder, who has yet to be tried on the murder charge, has previous criminal convictions related to family violence against the girlfriend, according to court records.

Experts such as social workers and prosecutors argue it’s common for people with histories of family violence convictions to later be charged with even more serious crimes such as murder.

A review of crime statistics from several major cities showed that at least a third of men implicated in domestic slayings had been under a restraining order for domestic violence or had been convicted of domestic abuse or for a violent crime, according to a December report by the Washington Post.

The statistics are even more troubling because many cases of domestic violence are never even reported, much less result in charges being filed, experts said.

“Unfortunately, oftentimes victims don’t call police to report the crime,” said Sybil Winters-Little, operations director at Bay Area Turning Point, a community based social service agency providing a variety of services, including shelter to families in need and public education/crime prevention activities.

“That often helps their case, showing they are factually victims of a crime. Otherwise, it’s your word against theirs.”

More than 2,590 people in 2017 reported incidents of domestic violence to police departments in Galveston County, the most recent year for which statistics have been reported, District Attorney Jack Roady said.

Of those cases, prosecutors filed charges in 956 cases — 723 misdemeanors and 190 felony cases, Roady said.

The cases filed include misdemeanor assault/family violence and felony charges of aggravated assault/family violence with a deadly weapon, assault/family violence with previous convictions, strangulation, strangulation with prior convictions and stalking, Roady said.

“We treat all domestic violence cases with utmost seriousness and work diligently to bring every abuser to justice,” Roady said.

But prosecuting domestic violence cases can be a difficult process, according to a criminal law expert.

“This is the intersection of law and the limits of what society can offer victims,” said Geoffrey Corn, a professor of law and presidential research at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.

“The reason you can’t make blanket statements is a lot about how you deal with this is going to turn on the attitude of individual DA or prosecutors’ offices. What is their philosophy going to be? Are they only going to pursue cases with a high probability of getting a conviction? Or will they adopt the philosophy of putting everything in front of a jury and sending a message to defendants?”

Essentially, prosecutors deal with several major hurdles when it comes to handling cases of domestic violence, Roady said.

Those issues include victim cooperation, the extent of the victim’s visible injuries, a victim’s decision to stay in a relationship with an abuser and the lack of independent witnesses to corroborate a victim’s testimony, Roady said.

For women in abusive relationships, the decision about whether to involve law enforcement often can be difficult, experts said.

“You have to look at what it means for a person to call police and report a crime,” Winters-Little said. “Shelter beds aren’t open 24/7. If you call police and report abuse, you have to have a safe place to go.”

Corn agreed. Many victims are trying to decide between the lesser of two evils — to move forward imagining what might happen in their lives or accept an apology and hope the violence won’t happen again, he said.

“It’s somewhat routine that a victim will become hesitant and outright oppose supporting prosecution,” Corn said. “Then you have the classic dilemma when you realize that the district attorney’s office doesn’t represent victims, but the people,” Corn said. “Normally, the people’s interest and the victim’s align. Both want to see the alleged wrongdoer brought to justice. But this time, the victim doesn’t want that.”

The Galveston County District Attorney’s Office doesn’t have a set policy for dealing with witnesses who request a case be dismissed, but the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a defendant has the right to confront accusers at trial, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Gurski said.

“When witnesses are cooperative, we evaluate the strength of the case based on the complaining witness’ demeanor and any corroborating evidence that would be admissible at trial,” Gurski said.

“When complaining witnesses are uncooperative or recant their previous statements, further prosecution of the case depends on whether admissible evidence exists to prove the offense beyond a reasonable doubt without the complainant’s testimony, or whether the complainant can be found and made to testify against their wishes.”

Victims of domestic violence can apply for protective orders through the court system, some of which could be lifetime agreements, Roady said.

But prosecutors have few means of monitoring those who have finished a prison sentence and are no longer on probation or parole and don’t have a protective order in place, Roady.

Ultimately, the solution might lie in how society treats abusers, Winters-Little said.

“It’s not just the victim taking accountability for what’s going on, but the offender,” Winters-Little said. “We can get the victim out of a situation, but the perpetrator is probably going to turn around and find another victim. As a society, we need to look at why abusers continue to abuse.”


News
editor's pickcenterpiece
Homeowner hangs on to history amid changing streetscape

Pam Bass bought the tidy wooden cottage on Ave. S back in 2005 to fix up and rent to island visitors as a vacation home.

The bright yellow cottage stands back from the street behind a short picket fence, a splash of color surrounded by gray sand, dirt, concrete pilings, flapping plastic construction barriers and men in hard hats on a gloomy January morning.

The sound of jackhammers and rattling generators splits the wet air. Walls are going up on the Holiday Inn Express & Suites to the west and south of the little yellow house; to the southeast is the bustling seawall bar and eatery, The Spot; and to the northeast, right across the street, a parking garage is slowly rising to serve the entire beachfront complex.

“It’s just the typical progress growing up around somebody’s little-bitty house,” Bass said.

This is the last house standing on the south side of Avenue S, on a block that once was a row of identical cottages standing side-by-side, someone’s childhood home. The first recorded history of the house on city books is 1923, though Bass believes the Craftsman-style bungalow was built earlier than that, she said.

Bass, 69, lives just a few blocks away in the same neighborhood. Originally from a cattle ranch in northeast Texas, she vacationed in Galveston with her parents when she was a kid, she said.

“I think a lot of people that come here and buy property vacationed here when they were kids,” she said.

Bass worked as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines for 45 years before settling in Galveston where, over the years, she has purchased three properties — a house built in 1903, another built in 1912 and the little yellow house.

“I’ve spent a lot of money,” she said. “I think I’ve done my share of building Galveston’s economy.”

The little yellow house faces north and boasts an elevated deck facing south from where guests used to have a decent view of the Gulf of Mexico, just across Seawall Boulevard.

“Now there’s just a slat of a view through there,” she said. “Renters will still have a glimpse of the Gulf and a view of the Pleasure Pier until somebody builds something to block that view.”

Since 2005, when Bass bought the little yellow house and began fixing it up, the neighborhood and Seawall Boulevard have seen a steady stream of changes. And while it looks as if the little yellow house is being swallowed up by progress, Bass doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

‘A PERFECT LOCATION’

“When I bought, it there was nothing around there to speak of except some dumpy little houses, and drug dealers and hookers were walking up and down the street,” Bass said.

“There was a convenience store where they’re building that hotel.”

The convenience store was apparently a notorious crime spot where at least one murder occurred, and the block was entrenched in drug activity, she said.

When Bass bought the house, she set to cleaning it up right away, and that meant crawling beneath it to remove decades of debris that had washed up.

“There were needles and all kinds of drug stuff under there,” she said. “The people who were helping me said, ‘No! Don’t touch that!’ That’s how naïve I was.”

In Bass’ eyes, the house was at the perfect location for a vacation rental, less than a block from the beach, and relatively unobstructed by buildings on the seawall.

“I approached the owner, bought the house I live in now and renovated the yellow one,” she said. It took a while and she takes pride in the house’s preserved original features, like its gleaming hardwood floors, she said.

After Hurricane Ike, the convenience store closed and the most worn-down houses were torn down. As Bass sees it, the neighborhood improved.

Businessman Dennis Byrd, owner of The Spot entertainment complex, filed plans to build a Holiday Inn Express & Suites at the site and was set to go after two years of planning until, in the summer of 2018, the city, the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers delayed groundbreaking for construction in a dispute over permitting. That kerfuffle delayed the building of the hotel but progress is visible now as walls are beginning to rise from the foundation, just a few feet from Bass’ roped off driveway.

Bass said she has had offers for the house, but declined to say from whom.

“They’ve offered to buy it three or four times,” she said. “But it’s always so low it’s laughable — pennies. Basically nothing. They try to catch me when they think I’m vulnerable.”

People might think that when a hotel goes up next door, adjacent homeowners will want to sell. But Bass has no intention of selling, she said.

“They’re moving on without me, so it doesn’t really matter, and so I hope we’ll both be happy,” she said. “I didn’t buy it in anticipation of flipping it. In my opinion, the neighborhood has been improved.”

‘KIND OF HISTORIC’

When the grass needs cutting on the postage stamp lawn Pam Bass keeps in pristine condition, despite the occasional intrusion of construction debris, she rolls her lawnmower down the street to take care of it.

“Most people probably look at me and think I stole the lawnmower,” she said.

She walks over regularly to tend to the house, a task she said gives her comfort and something to do.

She can’t really say what the immediate surroundings will mean in terms of attracting vacation renters to the little yellow house, but she is optimistic even about that prospect.

“I won’t know until the summertime comes,” she said. “My renters like going to The Spot. It’s kind of like having a restaurant on location.”

In her eyes, the little house looks something like the one in the animated movie “Up,” the old man’s cottage surrounded by tall buildings, lost in pavement, concrete and steel except for the bundle of helium balloons floating above its roof. The balloons eventually lifted that house and carried it off, but Bass plans for her house to stay put.

“I’m hanging on to it because I’m somewhat of a hoarder, especially of antiques,” she said. “I don’t ever sell anything.”

She sees the little yellow 1923 cottage as “kind of a historic property,” and herself as someone who wants to preserve the architectural value and integrity of the house where it was originally built.

“I don’t have any complaints about what’s happened here,” she said. “I just think it’s an interesting example of progress building up around the past.”

That describes much of Galveston where Bass, once a casual visitor to Galveston, got sand between her toes and eventually became an islander.

“I think my little house is going to be protected by the winds and the hurricanes now that the hotel is going to be there.”


News
Department dangles higher pay to attract officers

GALVESTON

The Galveston Police Department hopes this year to use higher pay to entice more experienced officers from other agencies as it seeks to save time and money on training and to improve officer safety, officials said.

Officers joining the Galveston department from other forces can start at $64,090 compared with the previous maximum of $57,000, a 12.4 percent increase, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

“We believe this will help attract experienced officers to the department who are dedicated to serving the community,” Barnett said.

The city doesn’t have precise data, but most new Galveston officers haven’t worked at another police department before, Barnett said.

“We estimate it’s about 90 percent, if not more,” Barnett said.

The program launches with the first civil service exam of the year on Feb. 11, Police Chief Vernon Hale said.

The test is open to people with at least two years of patrol experience at a municipal, county or state law enforcement agency, officials said.

The idea is to save the department time and money on training and enhance officer safety by having more experienced police on the force, Hale said.

The Galveston force isn’t devoid of experienced officers, but most recruits are new to police work, Hale said.

“We’ve had our mix, but the vast majority are inexperienced and have to go through the state academy,” Hale said.

That’s typically a five-month course that the police department has to pay for, officials said.

The force hasn’t had a problem attracting quality officers, but with the new pay the department can become more selective, he said.

“I’m no longer looking for good officers,” Hale said. “We’re at a point now I believe we can look for great officers, excellent officers.”

Previous incentives include a $3,000 pay bump for a master’s degree, another $2,496 for a master peace officer certification and another $900 for a bilingual officer, Barnett said.

An officer coming to Galveston from another agency could potentially enter the force with a salary up to $70,486 before uniform and additional shift pay allowances, if he had a master’s degree, was bilingual and had a master peace officer certification, Barnett said.

The police department’s budgeted personnel expenses for 2019 is $17.7 million, an increase of $734,000 compared with the previous year.

Much of the increase was to fill vacant positions, according to records. The 2018 budget allotted funds for 117 officers, while the 2019 budget funded 130.