Life Inside is an ongoing collaboration between the Marshall Project and VICE that offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system.
"The victim is requesting to drop the charges," my investigator Jeff said. "What should we do?"
"Put it in the reject pile," I said. It was January in Vernon, a small town on the Texas plains near the Oklahoma border, and Jeff and I were going through stacks of pending cases, trying to figure out which ones to prioritize.
I had been elected district attorney of the sprawling, sparsely populated 46th judicial district in north-central Texas in November 2006. As the top prosecuting attorney in the area, I was in charge of prosecuting all felony crimes, from oil theft to capital murder. When I took office, the district attorney position had been vacant for most of the previous year, and cases had piled up.
Many of the rejected cases involved family violence and contained affidavits of non-prosecution signed by the victim. We had an unspoken rule for dealing with these cases: "If they don't care, why should we?" Unless there was a third-party witness, we rejected domestic violence cases whenever the victim told us to. It was easy—no one ever complained.
But on July 4, 2009, something happened that forever altered my approach to family violence. Five-year-old Kati Earnest was killed in Vernon, beaten to death inside an apartment that her mother, Kristina Earnest, shared with a boyfriend, Tommy Castro, on the edge of town. Earnest and Castro brought Kati's limp body into Wilbarger General Hospital sometime before midnight, claiming the child had drowned in the bathtub.
The bruises on Kati's body told a different story. It was obvious that she had suffered a terrible beating, and the police and local child protective services were called. The autopsy results came in two days later: Kati had died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen, and her death was a homicide.
That same day Jeff came into the office with a broad smile on his face and a DVD in his hands. "I've got the confession right here," he said. "She admitted everything."
He popped in the disc and played the confession Kristina Earnest had given to police. But it was bizarre and didn't seem genuine. Her affect was flat, and she had no emotion—we would learn much later that she had taken Clonazepam, a powerful anti-anxiety drug, prior to her statement. The things Earnest claimed to have done to Kati didn't match up with the medical examiner's report on what caused the child's death.
I had an uneasy feeling. "She's lying," I said.
"I bring you a confession in a capital murder case, and you tell me you don't believe it?" Jeff asked, clearly annoyed.
I could understand his frustration. This case had sent shockwaves through our small community, where child homicides are exceedingly rare. If we had just accepted her confession, no matter how far-fetched, we would have had an open-and-shut case. But Earnest's confession just didn't add up for me.
"Let's look at Tommy Castro," I said.
Castro had numerous prior arrests, for charges like assault, harassment, sexual assault, and burglary; Kristina Earnest had none. Castro's ex-wife, Melissa, who lived in the Dallas area, called him "evil" and described years of horrific abuse she had endured at his hands. He was also on felony probation for an aggravated assault case in Amarillo, Texas. The victim in that crime was Shyla Frausto, his ex-girlfriend.
The more we looked into Castro's past, the more abused women we found: He had been accused of beating, abusing, and sexually assaulting women since the early 1990s. Yet despite his prior convictions involving family violence, the criminal justice system had repeatedly failed to hold Castro accountable, often dismissing charges "at the victim's request," even when the evidence was strong.
Castro's previous cases had been treated by police and prosecutors the same way I had treated family violence cases for two years: with disregard. It shamed me to think Kati might still be alive if Castro had been dealt with appropriately in the past.
We tried Castro for Kati's murder in May 2011. One of the most important witnesses was Dr. Judith Beechler, a counseling professor and domestic violence advocate who educated the jury about the power of violence, intimidation, and control in a relationship. Neighbors from the apartment complex also testified about how domineering Castro was with Kristina Earnest, describing how he always led her around by the arm, while she constantly stared at the ground; he even told her, they said, when it was OK to greet other people.
Women flew in from as far away as Indiana and Australia to testify about Castro's abuse, and after an eight-day trial, the jury decided to sentence him to life in prison. As we unraveled the case, I realized family violence is something I can no longer turn away from—that if the judicial system doesn't intercede on behalf of victims, there's usually no one else who can.
It isn't just the threat of physical violence that makes a victim compliant to the demands of an abuser. It's also the steady drip, drip, drip psychological effect that leaves victims feeling helpless, hopeless, and utterly dependent on the very person who abuses them. And despite all of the awfulness, it's common for victims to continue to love the people who abuse them.
One of the biggest advancements in the battle against family violence is police-worn body cameras, which can capture images of the victim just after they've been assaulted. Juries can not only see the physical marks, but the raw fear as well—and that brings the violence home in a way that the typed words in a police report never can.
J. Staley Heatly is a prosecutor in Vernon, Texas. He currently serves as chairman of the board of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. In 2013, he founded Texoma Alliance to Stop Abuse, a nonprofit program that provides court-ordered counseling to abusers. *Kristina Earnest eventually pleaded guilty to injury to a child by omission, a crime for which she was originally sentenced to 50 years in prison before being re-sentenced to 18 years.
*This story has been updated to include information about Earnest's eventual plea and sentencing for failing to protect her child, details that were regrettably omitted from the original.