SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – The prosecution process in a domestic violence case is one that is extremely complex and involves many redundancies and nuances. In some cases, it’s proving to be problematic for Utah prosecutors trying to hold attackers accountable.

Recently, ABC4 had the opportunity to speak with Sim Gill, Salt Lake County’s District Attorney who has been publicly prosecuting criminals for the past 27 years, regarding these cases.

Gill explained how difficult handling these cases can be. He told ABC4 that whenever there is a domestic violence case, there is a list of questions prosecutors must consider. According to him, these include:

  • What allegations are being made?
  • What evidence is there that domestic violence occurred?
  • Who are the parties involved?
  • Are the parties involved cooperative?
  • Does the victim want us to move forward with conviction?

Gill said that the end goal in a domestic violence case is not always about getting a conviction, though he added, “Of course we want to do that, we want to hold the suspect accountable. However, it is really about how we can make the victim feel safe, ensure they have the necessary resources, and that they are willing to move forward with prosecution.”

Why would a victim of domestic violence be apprehensive to move forward with prosecuting their abuser?

According to Gill, there is an array of reasons as to why a victim would be reluctant to admit to being abused, or as to why they may change their story after-the-fact.

“I’ve seen violence tolerated for a lot of reasons,” Gill told ABC4. He added,” As a young prosecutor, I remember trying to get a victim to cooperate with me to go on trial. If only I could get her to say that she was a victim. Finally, she told me to stop, and said she knew she would be beaten again, but that staying with her abuser was the only way she could get medical coverage for her children.”

“To her, getting a conviction meant nothing,” Gill stated.

ABC4 spoke with a domestic violence survivor about why victims sometimes choose to stay with their abuser rather than leave the relationship.

“You don’t want them to hurt you worse, you don’t want them to not love you anymore…because ultimately, the person that is hurting you, you do love them and you want them to love you too,” domestic violence survivor Tawnya McGrath said.

McGrath told ABC4 her mom told her that if her husband were to ever hurt any of their children, including Tawnya, then she would leave the relationship.

“And then when I was 17, (Dad) said I’m hunting and he wracked the gun, pointing it at me… he told me to go to hell and pulled the trigger,” McGrath said. She told ABC4 that this was the first time she ever called 911 on her father, though the abuse had started years ago.

Another challenge many domestic violence survivors face is when their family fails to see any warning signs that their loved one is in an abusive relationship, until it is too late.

“Getting that call is the worst call any parent should ever get. Your daughter was murdered. By a girl that lived with my daughter’s mom we all took care of her, for five years they were together. She just snapped that night,” the father of a murdered domestic violence victim Casey Baird said.

The Utah Domestic Violation Coalition said on average, a victim of domestic violence withstands roughly seven episodes of abuse before they leave the relationship.

“Many victims will say it’s not a good time right now. I know I am in danger, however I feel that because of maybe drug abuse, alcohol, stress, they feel like at this point in time — its going to be really dangerous for me to try to leave,” Kimmi Wolfe Communications & Engagement Specialist with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition said.

However, Wolfe said sometimes victims do not realize they are in a domestic violence situation to begin with.

“After years typically of manipulation and, you know, gaslighting, sometimes the victim will say ‘It’s my fault. I did this, I knew better. I knew not to do that, I made a mistake,’ and that has been so ingrained in the relationship,” Wolfe said.

So, what happens when a victim will not admit to being a victim?

When speaking about a conviction, Gill emphasized the importance of never re-victimizing a victim of domestic violence. “We never try to force a victim to admit to being abused. That re-victimizes them.”

As Gill stressed the no-pressure protocol, he also acknowledged several resources that have been put in place to offer victims of domestic violence, as well as their close ones, the necessary support.

“Whenever there is a domestic violence case, there are usually family and friends who already know about the emotional, physical, and psychological abuse going on. One of the first steps we take in these cases is to make sure everybody involved knows there are resources available.”

Gill listed a number of these resources, including Utah’s very first stand-alone Victim Support Services Division created by the District Attorney’s Office to take a trauma-informed, victim-centered approach.

Additionally, Gill noted how 12 years ago, he helped to create the very first Family Justice Center in Utah, offering victims of domestic violence an abundance of services in one convenient area. Lastly, Gill explained Camp HOPE — a camp created for child victims meant to interrupt integrational trauma by taking them to camp and giving them their summer back.

So, resources aside, how exactly does the District Attorney’s Office go about prosecuting domestic violence cases?

To answer this question, Gill said you first must designate the case. “The intimate or familial relationship between two people is what drives the designation of a domestic violence case.”

Once the case is classified, Gill said it’s taken to the professionals: the DA’s very own team of domestic violence prosecutors. “They’re the only ones who screen those cases. They’re looking into hundreds of them and making the best judgment calls. And if there is an error within that process, we always encourage law enforcement or victims to reach us.”

Gill described the screening process of a domestic violence case as a dynamic, case-by-case process that is fact-based while also interactive with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, non-government partners, and victims of the case.

Between 2016 and 2022, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office screened 25,851 cases, filed 16,953 cases, and declined 7,594. Gill says 1,294 cases were sent back for further investigations.

When ABC4 asked Gill what he has to say to people who do not feel he is tough enough on abusers in domestic violence cases, he explained his team can always do more, though there is a lot of work that is already being done.

“That is an unfair criticism that isn’t tied to the reality of the work that we are doing,” Gill said.

Gill noted that the District Attorney’s Office only handles cases where a suspect is facing charges of a Class A Misdemeanor or above. However, he acknowledged that the case is by no means forgotten if it does not fit that criteria. “Never will the District Attorney’s Office dismiss or look past a case. If we receive a case that is not as severe as a Class A, it will be transferred to a lower level of jurisdiction.”

According to Gill, this process is sometimes greeted with frustration by law enforcement. “There are times when law enforcement officials attempt to file a case with our office as a felony and it gets denied, often because there is not sufficient evidence,” said Gill. “Those are difficult conversations to have,” he added, “I’m very empathetic towards law enforcement and their frustrations. But, we’re professionals and that means we need to be able to talk to each other. If we got something wrong, we want that feedback.”

Gill said that screening a domestic violence case involves layers of redundancy. If law enforcement reports an error made by the District Attorney’s Office, a review is held on a Supervisory or Division Director level. From there, Chief Deputies and Division Directors meet and analyze the prosecution.

The DA’s Office deals with enhancements similarly to how they handle initial charges. “If the case warrants an enhancement, then of course you file one. But sometimes, the case may still not fit into that Class A category. Again, these cases are not dismissed, but transferred to a different jurisdiction.”

When asked if he thinks legislatures could or would consider looking into the idea of making intimate partner crimes a more severe offense, Gill said, “Yes, of course. We have a bifurcated system between Justice Courts and District Courts. We actually worked on that last legislation, as we started to notice that within the Justice Court level, we would try a domestic violence case and get a conviction, then it would take all of the victim’s courage to testify and you may even go through with a jury trial, only to get a notice of appeal and have to try the case all over again in a District Court.” Gill said that because of this, he and his team of prosecutors argued that there should be a choice between holding a trial in a Justice Court or a District Court, as a victim should never be re-victimized.

Gill said having a uniform baseline for domestic violence investigations will help eliminate problems in the prosecution process moving forward. He told ABC4 that if officers spend an extra 15 minutes asking the right questions when responding to a domestic violence call, it will help prosecutors and strengthen the work that subsequent detectives do.

The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition has also expressed that they want to assist law enforcement agencies in their domestic violence investigations.

“We would love to be invited in at any point if they [law enforcement] want increased training about their programs and how they can better respond,” said Kimmi Wolfe, Communications & Engagement Specialist with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

Others say it starts with knowing the warning signs and helping yourself, or your loved ones, before it is too late.

“I did not know until after I had a dead daughter laying on a gurney. So you have to talk about it, you have to report it,” Baird said.

In the end, Gill said that every case is given the same critical review. “Each case is driven by the evidence at hand. We ask ourselves, ‘Does it make sense to file this case, in this jurisdiction, with this allegation?’”

Finally, Gill made a point to reiterate his Office’s willingness for re-review, whether requested by law enforcement officials or a victim of a case.

“That is why we have these layers of redundancy at different levels or revision. We are professional, and professionals talk to each other because the objective with a domestic violence case is to make sure that we safeguard both the victim and their family, and that we construct the best case possible. What you don’t do is pixelate your face and have your voice be hidden to speak on something that could be very easily discussed over the phone or in person.”

Support for victims and survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence is available 24/7 at 1-800-897-LINK (5465). If you or someone else is in immediate danger, or in an emergency, please call 9-1-1 immediately.