Keeping a vigilant watch on the courtroom

Court-monitoring agency working on pilot program to keep guns out of hands of domestic violence offenders

Volunteers with the court-monitoring group WATCH. Credit: Submitted photo

As the Newtown tragedy reignites a national gun control debate, one local watchdog group is quietly spearheading a pilot project to take guns from domestic violence criminals in Hennepin County.

The project launching early this year will help enforce laws already on the books that prohibit domestic abusers from owning guns. The momentum comes from WATCH, a Downtown-based court-monitoring agency that was founded by a Lowry Hill resident 20 years ago.

“A lot of people ask me what is my legal background. I don’t have one,” said founder Susan Lenfestey. “In a way, that was better because I didn’t know what we couldn’t do. We’re a fresh set of eyes.”

The group has advised agencies in 47 states, and its research has led to changes in strangulation charges, child protection case proceedings, and even courtroom decorum — certain assault victims no longer need to share lobby space with their attackers, suffering renewed threats or strange gifts of flowers and chocolate.

About 100 volunteers take a shift in a courtroom each month, recording proceedings on bright red clipboards.

“It’s hard to know exactly what could be improved if no one is watching and seeing the bigger trends,” said Donna McNamara, WATCH development and communications director.

To create the forthcoming Gun Surrender Project, WATCH gathered collaborators from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Minneapolis City Attorney’s office, Minneapolis Police Department, probation, and victim advocates. They designed a system that documents the presence of guns before cases reach the courtroom. That takes the burden off of offenders to admit they have guns and voluntarily turn them in — an unlikely outcome of the 10-year-old law.

“More than 50 percent of femicides in Minnesota are committed with a firearm, and there is a history of violence in most cases,” said Kate Hovde, WATCH court monitoring coordinator. 

911 dispatchers are receiving additional training to ask domestic abuse callers whether the perpetrator has a firearm. When police arrive on the scene, they also ask whether there are weapons at home. If a gun was used in an offense, it can be confiscated immediately.

Then if a domestic abuser winds up in Domestic Violence Court on a new offense, the judge already knows about the presence of a gun and can order its confiscation. Previously, the topic of guns often didn’t come up until a case reached the courtroom, and offenders didn’t reveal they continued to illegally owns guns to protect themselves from self-incrimination.

The new system also solves the problem of storing confiscated guns, and clarifies the notification process to reclaim them when necessary.

“There are many steps that need to be taken to ensure implementation is effective, and therefore, many opportunities for glitches that can derail the process,” Hovde said.

Following the Newtown massacre, Mayor R.T. Rybak highlighted the city’s work to get the most serious gun crime offenders off the street.

In the past three years, Minneapolis has participated in a joint initiative to fight gun crimes with the U.S. Attorney’s office, Hennepin County Attorney’s office, and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. When Minneapolis police arrest a prior felon who is barred from owning a gun, the agencies meet to decide which jurisdiction has the best chance of conviction and the best potential sentence.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the program works. He said he increased his gun caseload by 25 percent in the last year to total 340 cases, with a conviction rate of 83 percent.

“It’s working amazingly well,” Freeman said. “We’re getting significant sentences we might not have gotten otherwise. … We have some of the lowest crime statistics in 30 years.”

Regarding WATCH, Freeman said he appreciates the accountability they provide, although he occasionally hears people mutter that WATCH doesn’t understand the system.

“Some folks might not like to have people watching everything they do,” Freeman said. “They’ve called us on some things. We’re not perfect. … They see things we can’t see.”

Lenfestey said that in WATCH’s early years, one attorney once criticized the group as “just a bunch of rich, suburban b—–s.”

“To which I said, ‘I don’t live in the suburbs,’“ Lenfestey said.

Lenfestey said she has worked hard to diversify the volunteer base, recruiting prospective law students and recent immigrants. About 75 new volunteers train in each year, and they can drop out anytime or follow a case to completion if they wish. One Volunteer-of-the-Year recipient said in an emotional speech that he was working on behalf of his mother, who was a victim of domestic abuse.

“He felt there was nothing he could do for her as a child, but this was something he could do as an adult,” Lenfestey said. “Often people wind up here not quite realizing that something in their past tugged them in this direction.”

Lenfestey said she was inspired to start the group after reading a 1991 Star Tribune series called “Free to Rape” covering lenient sentences of sex offenders. One source in the series said that unless an organization like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) started watching the courts, nothing would ever change.

Lenfestey, a neighborhood activist and mother of four, thought the issue looked like something she could tackle. She spent a year raising money and securing nonprofit status.

In the year Lenfestey started organizing, a recent Macalester graduate was sexually assaulted and murdered in her neighborhood near Douglas & Fremont. A year later — about the time Lenfestey’s first volunteers entered the court room — the crime went to trial, she said, revealing the offender’s history of sadistic violence that never yielded sentences longer than a couple of years apiece.

WATCH went on to focus its observation on crimes against women and children. It advocated for the formation of a Domestic Violence Court in 2000 that hears misdemeanor-level cases.

“Research shows that by taking first offenses seriously, the justice system can prevent violence from escalating in many cases,” McNamara said.

WATCH aims to serve primarily as a monitor, and secondarily as an advocate. It releases a newsletter with meticulously fact-checked “offender chronologies” that tell the story of an offender’s journey through the court system — it’s a widely read piece of mail in the court system, with people checking to see if the cases are ones they touched. Lenfestey once witnessed an arraignment court judge reviewing a chronology before setting a defendant’s bail.

WATCH is currently launching a study to see how strengthened sex-trafficking laws are impacting Hennepin County courts. And it recently hired a new executive director, Amy Arcand, who previously created a Latina leadership program and an outreach program for women used in prostitution.

“The way MADD changed attitudes toward drunk driving, we have played a part in changing attitudes towards violence against women,” Lenfestey said. “One of the very first times I went to arraignment court, the judge looked right past the husband or boyfriend being arraigned and said to his alleged victim … ‘What did you do this time?’ We would not see or hear that today.”

Now age 66, Lenfestey is less involved in WATCH’s day-to-day operations than she once was. In the early years, Lenfestey and founding executive director Jacquelyn Hauser joked that they covered 24-hour days between the two of them. Lenfestey went to bed around 3 a.m., and Hauser woke at 4 a.m. for marathon training.

“It was my idea, but a lot of people have been running alongside me holding up the tips of my wings,” Lenfestey said.

Reach Michelle Bruch at [email protected]