This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
“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 my investigator 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 came into office, the district attorney position had been vacant for most of the previous year, and the 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 we had 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. Kristina and Tommy brought Kati’s limp body into Wilbarger General Hospital before midnight, claiming she had drowned in the tub. The bruises on Kati’s body told a different story. It was obvious that Kati had suffered a terrible beating, and the police and 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, my investigator, 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 gave to police. But it was bizarre and didn’t seem genuine. Her affect was flat—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 Kristina 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 just accepted her confession, no matter how far-fetched, we would have had an open-and-shut case. But Kristina’s confession just didn’t add up for me. “Let’s look at Tommy Castro,” I said.
The man 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, said Castro was “evil” and described years of horrific abuse endured at his hands. Castro was also on felony probation for an aggravated assault case in Amarillo. 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. Castro had been accused of beating, abusing, and sexually assaulting women since the early 1990s. Yet even though he had prior convictions, involving family violence, the criminal justice system had repeatedly failed to hold him accountable, often dismissing charges “at the victim’s request” even when the evidence was strong. Castro’s previous cases were 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. At trial, she 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. (He always led her around by the arm, and she constantly stared at the ground; he even told her, they said, when it was okay 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 wishes of their abuser, but also the steady drip, drip, drip psychological effect that leaves them feeling helpless, hopeless, and utterly dependent upon the very person who abuses them. And despite all of the awfulness, it is common for victims to still love the person who beats them.
One of the biggest advancements in the battle against family violence is police-worn body cameras. They can capture images of the victim just after they’ve been assaulted, so juries can not only see the physical marks on their face, but the raw fear, too.
It 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 non-profit 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.
Editor's note: 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.