Nashville works to reduce domestic violence numbers

Proposed budget adds 2 more prosecutors for domestic cases

2:06 AM, May. 16, 2012

Written by
Brian Haas – The Tennessean –
Domestic violence prosecutors should be familiar with Jontay Johns. The 29-year-old Nashvillian has been arrested at least 17 times on domestic violence-related charges since 2001 and has had at least two orders of protection sought against him, court records show. By the time he met 23-year-old Jennifer Fitts, he had been sentenced to spend 40 days in jail, according to court records.

Metro police detectives say Johns killed Fitts, his girlfriend, in mid-January in her Lynmeade Court home. They tracked him down in jail, where he was awaiting trial on charges of aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault and aggravated rape involving a new girlfriend.

“This was probably inevitable,” said Fitts’ aunt, Bobbie Lynn Clift. “It’s just that day to day of feeling the loss … just wondering why? That question just burns in my gut. Why?’’

Last year, there were 12,686 reported domestic violence crimes in Davidson County, nine of those were homicides. Two domestic violence prosecutors handled most of those cases, each averaging about 250 cases every week.
Mayor Karl Dean says they need help.

As part of his budget proposal, the mayor recommends adding two more domestic violence prosecutors. While the $125,000 proposal may sound meager in light of the full $1.71 billion budget, it’s part of an ongoing top-to-bottom audit to identify how Nashville can improve the way it addresses domestic violence, from investigation and prosecution to victim services.
“We need to send a message that Nashville is a safe city for women and children,” Dean said in an interview. “And I don’t think it’s just a message; I think we’re going to get results.”

He’s hoping those results include fewer victims like Fitts, the second domestic violence victim murdered this year in Nashville. Tennessee has a deplorable reputation for domestic violence. Since 2001, Tennessee has ranked among the Top 10 states with the highest rates of women murdered by men. The state has been included on that list every year but 2009, according to the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit Washington-based public safety research and advocacy organization. It has ranked in the Top 5 five times, including the past two years.

Detectives dwindle

Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson said increasing the number of prosecutors devoted to domestic violence cases would allow his office to spend more time on each one.

“You don’t have the time that you would like to have, both to review all the police reports and take the time that you need to talk to the victims, talk to the witnesses,” he said. “The quality is related to the amount of time you have to spend on the case.”

In the 1990s, Nashville was at the forefront of battling domestic violence. Metro Police had 25 domestic violence detectives. Johnson’s office had its own domestic violence unit as well, with four full-time prosecutors. Police and prosecutors met regularly to coordinate cases.But Nashville grew and changed. Its criminal court doubled its volume, yet the number of prosecutors remained the same. City leaders came and went. Mark Wynn, one of the founding members of Metro Police’s domestic violence unit and an international police consultant, could not point to one specific reason for the decline.

“What you saw here in Nashville was some reality. Obviously, money,” he said. “You saw a different philosophy in police management with Chief (Ronal) Serpas who decided that his priority was somewhere else. You saw heavy caseloads in the courts and the need to administer justice as quickly as you could, but without specialists in the court.”

As the number of specialized domestic violence prosecutors dropped, so did the number of domestic violence detectives — to only 10 in 2007. A year later, the police unit’s supervising lieutenant told the Davidson County Domestic Violence Death Review Team that the cuts had reduced their ability to function.

“We have actually had to lock the doors because we did not have sufficient personnel to keep the facility open to the public,” now retired Lt. Gary Whitehouse told them, according to an email he sent the team at the time. “The cases are basically put on hold; the victims are put on hold.”

Domestic violence advocates started complaining, and the police department slowly began rebuilding the domestic violence unit. Today, it has 15 detectives, a 16th is away on military duty and the unit plans to add a 17th member to the staff. The addition of two more domestic violence prosecutors essentially would restore the unit Johnson once had. He said that should dramatically improve domestic violence prosecutions.

“We spend a lot more of our time educating, supporting, advising and helping these (victims), usually women, to come to court and actually participate in the prosecution,” Johnson said.

Charges accumulate

Before Fitts was killed, her boyfriend had racked up more than a dozen domestic violence-related charges from at least two other women. He was convicted in only one case. One woman filed charges against him at least three times, in addition to taking out three orders of protection. Another woman followed through with charges in 2010 after he smashed her face with a glass, cutting her eye and face. He was sentenced to 40 days in jail.
On March 7, police say he raped another woman and punched her so hard she temporarily lost hearing in her ear.

Johns was in jail awaiting trial in that rape case when he was charged in Fitts’ murder. His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Mike Engle, declined to comment on his behalf.

Clift was the one who discovered the body of her niece, a young woman who loved her pit bull, Snoop, and her Pomeranian, Taz. Fitts, who was proud to host the family for Thanksgiving dinner, had been strangled.

“She had such a big heart that sometimes she would let people take advantage of her. And, she had the sweetest soul, but sometimes she seemed lost,” Clift said. “For me, I couldn’t get it that she was murdered. But I told her that I would work diligently to find the person who did that to her.”
Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or

Posted on: 16 May, 2012


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