County intervention programs, increased reporting of domestic-violence incidents, outreach, mental-health programs and rigorous arrests and prosecution contributed to the decline, Assistant District Attorney Rolanda Pierre Dixon said during a press conference in San Jose.
"It is our belief that Santa Clara County's cutting-edge policies and procedures helped keep the number of domestic-violence-related deaths down this year, especially at a time when the economy is in such poor shape. ... It is very clear that outside stressors such as underemployment can be deadly in a domestic-violence home," she said.
But while the lower numbers are encouraging, county officials say there is still more work to be done.
One is too many
"Even one death is one too many," said Dixon, chair of the Domestic Violence Death Review Team, a committee of the Santa Clara County Domestic Violence Council. The committee is composed of representatives from the DA's office, local law enforcement, therapists, victim advocates, probation, Department of Corrections, adult protective services, the Coroner's Office and other legal and social services groups.
The number of deaths in 2010 is up from a low of three in 2008 but down from a high of 21 deaths in 2003, according to the committee's annual report. The highest incident rate for the past decade was in 2000, with 15 separate events.
The 2010 deaths occurred in three separate incidents, including the homicide/suicide in Mountain View involving a divorced couple, Cho Yong Chang, 70, and In Ku Lee, 62, who owned a dry cleaning business. The others were in San Jose (one homicide/suicide and one homicide). All of the deaths were by firearm, Dixon said.
The victims' and perpetrators' ages ranged from 28 to 70. The three female victims were 28, 31 and 62 years old; the male perpetrators were 40 and 70, the report noted. Two of the dead were Asian, two were Caucasian and one was Hispanic. None were African-American and none were among immigrants. One of the deaths involved people involved in a lesbian relationship.
The committee focused on a case-by-case examination of all deaths in the county related to domestic violence: homicides, homicide/suicides, suicides, accidents and so-called blue suicides — when an individual threatens to kill police officers and comes at the officers with a deadly weapon, provoking law enforcement to shoot.
The reviews examine the lives of victims and perpetrators and any contact they had with the system prior to their deaths to identify gaps in law enforcement, justice, penal and social services.
No one intervened
The committee's investigation of last year's cases "clearly shows that nearly everyone around these victims was aware of serious problems in the relationship but did not intervene prior to the deaths. Domestic violence does not get better on its own," the report noted.
For that reason, since 2002, the committee has been pushing the theme "Speak up — Save lives," to develop public awareness about the need to alert authorities when such violence is suspected, Dixon said.
The District Attorney's Office reviewed 4,433 domestic-violence cases in 2010 (85 new cases per week) and prosecuted 2,457 — about 47 new criminal cases weekly.
Retraining orders help
Restraining orders appear to have a significant impact on reducing domestic-violence deaths, Dixon said. In the 2010 deaths, none of the victims had filed police reports for prior domestic violence and none of the perpetrators had prior restraining orders, according to the report.
Santa Clara County Superior Court issued 2,252 restraining orders and the DA's office issued 1,917 misdemeanor and 540 felony domestic-violence complaints, according to the report. The county also offers counseling, batterer treatment groups and programs for victims and their families, according to the report.
Santa Clara County became one of the first in the state to take part in the Domestic Violence Registry, which provides current information to law-enforcement agencies statewide on domestic-violence perpetrators.
In the vast majority of domestic-violence cases, when the decision to kill was made, the perpetrator was "stone cold sober. You can't blame it on the Budweiser," Dixon said.
Untreated and inadequately treated mental-health issues underlie many of the cases the committee reviewed this year, Dixon said.
In 2009, Palo Alto resident Heather Russell, 29, died by suicide on May 5, 2009, after repeated beatings by a boyfriend, according to police. Jennifer Schipsi, 29, also of Palo Alto, was strangled Oct. 15, 2009, and her body was burned in an arson fire set by her boyfriend, Bulos Zumot. He was convicted of first-degree murder and arson on Feb. 10. The couple had a long history of domestic violence, according to prosecutors, and many of the "red flags" professionals say lead to domestic violence.