This story is part of a continuing series of Hometown Heroes. CACSEI is highlighting the work of regional child protection workers, advocates, law enforcement, and allies in our work against child abuse.
Formerly an attorney in private practice, David Sutter handled a smattering of different cases. Any day could bring a real estate, criminal defense, divorce, or injury dispute across his desk. “In a small town, it’s tougher to specialize”, he says. Whoever walked in the door is who he helped.
Then, late in 2017, the Jefferson County Prosecutor announced he was stepping down from the post with one year left in the term. In Indiana, the replacement is selected by the office holder’s political party caucus. Having already considered a run in the future, Sutter put his name in the hat. “And then no one else put their name in. Maybe they felt like I was going to do a good job. Or maybe no one else wanted it,” he recalls with good humor.
On January 1, 2018, Sutter became the Prosecutor and then immediately filed for re-election as the term was up that same year.
Already knowing and understanding the community, Sutter found himself with decisions he hadn’t made before surrounding whether to press charges. “As far as the legal system goes, there are a lot of misconceptions,” says Sutter. “We consider all relevant factors when making charging decisions and base this strictly on the facts of the case.” Child and domestic abuse cases are at the top of my mind.
“It is certainly a big responsibility for any prosecutor to make a charging decision,” he says. Sometimes, particularly in domestic violence cases, the victims don’t want to pursue prosecution for a variety of reasons. “It’s not uncommon for a domestic violence victim to call the police only to say they don’t want to press charges,” says Sutter. However, at that point, with the evidence and police reports in hand, that decision rests only with the prosecutor.
“Our office decides charges and there are times in domestic settings, particularly when children are exposed to a crime or witness one,” says Sutter. “[The adults] may want to reconcile and say they don’t want to press charges but we have other interests in protecting the victim, the community and the kids in the case. Based on the facts of the case and the factors involved, we may proceed to criminal charges even when they don’t want to.” Ultimately, the prosecutor represents victims and the state of Indiana.
“Cases involving kids are unique,” says Sutter. A Jefferson County native his whole life, he knew of the work CACSEI was doing in southeast Indiana, and of the satellite office in Madison. CACSEI was among the first organizations he sat down with when becoming Prosecutor in 2018. “Jefferson County utilizes them so often that I knew within a couple of months we would need them.”
“I can recall in that first year a couple of cases that stand out to me where we really needed CACSEI. We had one case in the summer of 2018 where I was comforted knowing the CAC was here, serving us, and we had a satellite office in Madison,” says Sutter. He adds, “Because of the emergency, they came down on the weekend. I had previous cases and interviews before with CAC, but this was the first time I remembered thinking, ‘Wow, this is impressive.’ Here they are in an abuse situation on a Sunday. They dropped what they were doing to come down and help out and it made a huge difference.”
For Prosecutors trying to win a case in Court, challenges come up when dealing with kids and adults. The terms kids use can cause confusion, they may be scared, they may not even remember the situation depending on their age. Sutter notes some juries may take the word of an adult over a child, simply because the adult is perceived to be more aware of a situation.
“The real importance of having these [forensic interview] videos is the kids have a big notepad and markers. They can draw and circle things,” says Sutter, adding that they’re also timely. And even when kids have been abused for a long time and physical evidence is gone or unavailable, forensic interviews allow kids to draw, talk, and communicate in ways that are appropriate for their age.
“It’s different for folks questioning kids vs. adults. Kids are vulnerable to leading questions or having been exposed to an adult that could have influenced a thought in the child’s head,” says Sutter. “We have safeguards to protect kids in these situations. The nice thing about the CAC is we’re getting an interview by someone who is specifically trained to talk to child victims,” he adds.
“Sometimes adults are better at sticking to a story even when it is not true because they understand the complexities of the issue they’re involved in and the consequences,” he says with a hint of despair. “Unfortunately sometimes in court this means attorneys might ask, ‘Do you believe a child or an adult?” For some, he says, “They may not be inclined to listen to a child. This is precisely where interviews by CACSEI can help.”
Among the many challenges in the lives of abused kids and the teams working toward justice is the ongoing drug epidemic. Ask Sutter what the biggest challenge facing his office is and he’ll clearly proclaim “Meth” before you can finish the question.
“And we’re not just talking about the cases of dealing meth. It’s everything. Cases where people are under the influence of meth and the offenses that come with it,” he says. Sutter estimates 95% of the cases in his office are drug-related, and that’s not to say they’re drug-specific. Drugs are involved with cases where a person wrecks a car, beats a child, burglarizes property, or commits rape, murder, or worse. “Drugs always seem to be a factor,” he says.
Despite the challenges, Sutter intends to run for re-election in 2022. He remains grateful for CACSEI’s work in the region and the many nonprofits and agencies working with families in crisis. “There’s not always a simple solution to every problem. Whether it is deciding which cases we need to be requesting jail time on or which we can give opportunities for rehabilitation, my focus is always on community safety for the folks here in Jefferson County. I certainly appreciate the work of CACSEI and others in helping bring these often difficult cases to a resolution for victims.”