A Woman’s Death Shines Light on Cracks in Louisville's Domestic Violence Response

May 9, 2022 at 10:08 am
Louisville Bench Warrant

What began as an argument between Christopher Gordon and Angelica James in November 2020 escalated to a violent assault that police said lasted several minutes. Angry at James for talking to the mechanic working on her car, Gordon tossed her to the ground and beat her with his fists before taking the car, police said. James went to a neighbor’s home to call for help.

When police arrived Gordon sped away down Greenbelt Highway in south Louisville, topping 100mph in less than three miles before the officers got orders to end the chase. 

Gordon was arrested two months later and charged with a felony fourth degree domestic violence assault. Fourth degree assault is usually a misdemeanor, but since Gordon had already been convicted of the offense twice in two years, police charged him with the enhanced felony in the 2020 incident. 

He could have faced up to five years in prison. But the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney declined to prosecute the case. Instead, in Jefferson District Court, Gordon was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor offense for the third time since April 2019. Judge Annette Karem sentenced him to two years of supervised probation in lieu of a year of incarceration. She ordered him to stay away from James and threatened to put him in jail if he didn’t. 

Now, Gordon is charged with James’ murder. 

Police say he fatally shot James and wounded her 10-year-old son outside her Newburg home in late February. Gordon also left the scene with a 2-year-old son he shared with James, sparking an Amber Alert that was broadcast throughout the area. He pleaded not guilty in Jefferson Circuit court last month and a judge set his bond at $250,000.

The Louisville Metro Police Department reports at least eight of this year’s 54 homicides are domestic violence related. That's already on par with the yearly average for the decade between 2010 and 2020. In that time, police reported more than 51,640 domestic violence incidents and 93 homicides — one fatality out of roughly every 555 violent domestic assaults reported.

The offenders who kill are often serial abusers.

More than half of the 82 offenders accused of a domestic violence murder between 2011 and 2020 had prior domestic violence offenses, according to annual reports from the city’s domestic violence fatality review commission. And more than a quarter of perpetrators had a family history of domestic violence, the commission found.

Gordon had both. Between August 2015 and November 2020, Gordon was accused of and ultimately pleaded guilty every year to misdemeanor crimes involving domestic violence assault, harassment, trespassing or violating a court protective order, according to a review of court records by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

During the same time, his late father was also in and out of court dozens of times for violating court protective orders and harassing his mother at her home where Gordon often stayed.

The case against Gordon now, and his long record of charges that led up to it, shows how the cycle of domestic violence can escalate when offenders avoid accountability, according to criminal justice experts and domestic violence prevention advocates.

“All the signs were there,” said Cassie Drochelman, the interim executive director of the Mary Byron Project, a nonprofit focused on ending domestic violence.  “I don't think anyone can look at this case and go, ‘Well, no one knew that this was coming.’”

Prosecutor’s policies and plea agreements, lenient judges, a forgetful defense attorney and a mistake by a probation officer were among the many factors that helped Gordon escape serious punishment over the years, according to KyCIR’s review.

domestic violence
Jake Ryan
Christopher Gordon has appeared in court multiple times over the years for charges related to domestic violence. Each time Gordon was accused of assault, he was on probation for a prior conviction, according to court records. | Collage by KyCIR

Gordon, now 32, was convicted of reckless homicide in 2013 after police said he shot and killed a 17-year-old boy in an argument about a moped two years earlier when Gordon was 19. He’s since been accused at least 10 different times of assaulting or harassing women with whom he shares children, according to a KyCIR review of online court records.

Judges in Jefferson District Court ordered Christopher Gordon first to probation with each new offense in lieu of immediate incarceration, oftentimes at the prosecutor’s suggestion.

Instead of probation, he should have been in jail, Drochelman said.

“He needed to not be able to continue to harm people,” she said. “This woman who is now dead did not receive the justice that she should have. And that’s heartbreaking.”

James’s killing highlights gaps in the city’s court system that harm victims and embolden offenders — many which were highlighted in a 2018 external audit that found it to be a fragmented and inconsistent apparatus that puts victims and offenders at risk of slipping through cracks. 

That report listed more than 80 recommendations to improve the system. But city officials have been slow to make any changes. Just 14 of 80 recommendations to improve the system are complete. 

Emily Sack, who LMPD commissioned to complete the review in 2018, said in an interview last week that the flaws in Louisville’s system aren’t unusual — and she was hopeful that the people tasked with remedying the issues were passionate about making improvements.

The last two pandemic years were very challenging for reform work, said Sack, a law professor at Roger Williams University.

“But I think now is really the time to sort of recommit to that,” she said. “And I think it's very possible to make some really important improvements.”

State law requires officers to complete a report called a JC-3 on all actual or suspected cases of “domestic violence and abuse” and “dating violence and abuse.”  In 2021, LMPD filed more JC-3 reports than in any year since 2011, according to police data. Police also recorded more assaults, intimidation charges and homicides than in recent years.

LMPD Chief Erika Shields expects nearly a quarter of homicides this year will be tied to domestic violence — a trend she said earlier this month is “terrifying.”

Every domestic violence related death is reviewed by the city’s fatality review committee. 

Drochelman said she expects that Angelica James’s killing will “be a really hard one for them."

“To me, something fell through the cracks,” she said. 

Gordon’s attorney, Rob Eggert, declined to make Gordon available for an interview for this story. In a March court hearing, Eggert questioned the police narrative that Gordon killed James, suggesting the fatal bullet may have come from “friendly fire.”

LMPD detective Bradley Beckham said in court then that James’s older sons shot at Gordon when they witnessed him shooting at their mother. Police collected nearly 30 shell casings from the scene, and about a dozen came from the .40 caliber handgun Gordon allegedly used, Beckham said. 

James’s teenaged son allegedly fired a 9mm handgun 15-20 times, and two shots were also fired from a .380 caliber handgun, he said — but at Gordon’s court hearing in March, Beckham said he didn’t know who fired that gun, which was still missing.

Beckham said a medical examiner speculated that the fatal shots came from Gordon, based on the direction of the bullets. But Eggert said it’s impossible to know without a report from the Kentucky State Police crime lab, which isn’t complete.

An unused tool

Misdemeanor sentencings in district court are limited to one year of incarceration. In Louisville, prosecutors with the Jefferson County Attorney’s office, who handle cases in district court, opt first for probation because it can be ordered for up to two years instead of immediate jail, lengthening the time the court is able to monitor a person, said Erin White, chief of the Jefferson County attorney’s domestic violence unit. 

On probation, a person convicted of a misdemeanor crime can be required to pay fees, attend classes, check in with probation officers, keep away from victims and generally stay out of trouble. If they don’t, they can be sent to jail.

Each time Gordon was accused of assault, he was on probation for a prior conviction, according to court records. And each time, he’d spend a chunk of time in jail or on house arrest. In all, he’s been incarcerated for at least 3 ½ years since 2015, according to court records.

When the Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney had the opportunity to prosecute Gordon’s 2020 assault charge as a felony in circuit court, it was the first time he could have faced the threat of a lengthy prison sentence after assaulting a woman. 

But “evidentiary challenges” prevented the prosecution, said Erwin Roberts, the first assistant for the Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney. 

In an email, he said jail calls between James and Gordon, the detective in the case being unable to obtain an interview or statement from James and the victim recanting her story to a private investigator all contributed to the decision to forego felony charges and resolve in district court. He said that was “the best outcome for the case.”

“No one in our community understands the dangers of domestic violence better than these prosecutors who have the responsibility to prosecute the most dangerous offenders in our community,” Roberts said.

The ability to enhance a misdemeanor domestic violence assault charge to a felony after three convictions within five years was added to state law in 2000 when legislators passed an omnibus sexual offense bill that aimed to stiffen penalties for offenders and support victims. 

The point of the law is to give prosecutors more tools to protect victims against serial abusers, said former state Rep. John F. Vincent, who added the enhancement legislation to the bill.

The courts need “more teeth” when dealing with repeat offenders, said Vincent, who is now a circuit court judge in Boyd County. 

“The tools that we provided prosecutors should be utilized to protect victims,” he said.

In Louisville, fewer than a third of the 374 people charged with domestic violence assault and eligible for enhancement between March 2017 and March 2022 were indicted on the higher felony charge in Jefferson Circuit Court. Of those that were indicted in that time, more than 85% — 86 people — pled guilty, according to a review of court records. 

More than 250 had their charge dismissed or amended to lesser crimes in Jefferson District Court. 

In the 2018 assessment of the domestic violence services available in Louisville, Sack said prosecutors aren’t charging repeat domestic abusers with felonies as often as they should be.

“This type of repeat offender enhancement is an important tool in domestic violence cases,” she said. “But it appears to be underutilized.”

Prosecutors, she said, had “differing perspectives” on what was required to pursue the felony conviction for repeat offenders.

“The County Attorney’s office believes that the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office requires the third offense to be serious in order to move forward,” Sack said. “The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office says that it does not require the third offense to be serious, but only that there be good documentation of injury.”

She recommended in her report that the two prosecuting agencies in the city work together and find ways to better use the law. The recommendation is still marked as incomplete. A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Attorney directed questions about the recommendation to the Commonwealth’s Attorney. A spokesperson for that agency did not respond to a request for comment.

'A good feeling'

In June 2017, Gordon was in district court after an assault charge a few months before triggered multiple probation violations for past domestic abuse offenses.

Police said he got into an argument with the mother of two of his kids and he slapped her and pulled out some of her hair.

In court, prosecutors played a recording of jail calls between Gordon and the woman in which she said she was tired of him beating and kicking her and she hoped he never gets out of jail.

“You deserve it,” she said. “You can’t keep your hands off of females.”

The prosecutor with the Jefferson County Attorney’s office asked Judge Jennifer Leibson to revoke Gordon’s prior probation agreements and send him to jail for a total of more than 2 years on multiple offenses.

Leibson opted for less than half of that and ordered him to a year in jail with no chance for early release or any opportunity to work or look for jobs while incarcerated. 

The sentence was Gordon’s stiffest yet for domestic violence related offenses.

But less than nine months later, he left the city’s Community Correctional Center — a lower security jail located downtown — for a medical appointment and never returned. 

Indicted for felony escape, he was back in court in August 2018 and a prosecutor with the Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney asked Judge Mitch Perry to send Gordon to prison for three years.

Perry instead decided to put Gordon on house arrest for 90 days and then probation for five years. Perry said it was “a break, a huge break.”

“I have a good feeling about this,” Perry said. “You’ve been in trouble basically your whole life. And if we don’t have your attention now, we’re never going to get it.”

Less than two weeks later he was charged again with another assault. This time, police said Gordon went to the same woman’s house, spit in her face and slammed her head against a wall. Days later, he returned to the woman’s home and refused to leave, violating the conditions of a court protective order and resulting in a new criminal charge for Gordon.

For those offenses, Jefferson District Court Judge Katie King allowed Gordon to avoid jail sentences of 90 days and 270 days on the condition he keep away from the victim and stay out of trouble for two years.

Less than three months later, police said, he went to the woman’s home again, kicked in her door and dragged her to a vehicle where he began beating her with his fist. His sister drove the vehicle away and Gordon began strangling the woman. She eventually jumped from the moving vehicle to escape. At the time, she was 32 weeks pregnant.

Presented with a plea agreement for probation, district court Judge Julie Kaelin told Gordon she was apprehensive about accepting the deal due to the severity of the charges. 

In this instance, Kaelin did not have a copy of Gordon’s criminal record. So, she asked his attorney, Justin C. Brown, for a summary of his past.

Brown, who had represented Gordon at least three times before in cases related to domestic violence or violating a protective order, told Kaelin that Gordon had one prior domestic violence assault charge that was amended down to a harassment, and an escape conviction from 2018. He did not mention any of the seven other cases in which Gordon was accused of assault or harassing a woman.

With that, Kaelin accepted the deal, saying she was doing so because he didn’t seem to have an extensive history with assault. She sentenced Gordon to probation. 

Three months later, he was back in court on a new charge after police said he punched the same woman in the face and stole her car. He pleaded guilty to fourth degree domestic violence assault a month later and Judge Katie King ordered him again to two years of probation.

Kaelin declined to comment for this report. Brown said that at the time, he couldn’t remember the extent of Gordon’s criminal history.

King did not return a request for comment for this story.

Each of the offenses violated the terms of his probation in Jefferson Circuit Court — from the 2018 escape charge — and put Gordon at risk of three years in prison.

But in a court hearing in April 2019, Judge Mitch Perry declined to send Gordon to prison.  Instead, he allowed Gordon to remain on probation and threatened that he had “better toe the line.”

“If you hit anyone, especially a woman, in the face, you have no hope with me,” Perry said. “If you ever do that again I will send you to serve every day.”

Gordon returned to Perry’s court in September 2019, again for a new violent offense that violated the terms of his probation, and he again avoided prison time.

“You cannot hit people. You especially cannot hit a woman,” Perry said. “If I find credible evidence that you’ve done that or you’ve done that in the past, make no mistake I will punish you severely.”

Two months later, in November 2020, Gordon assaulted Angelica James.

Perry declined KyCIR's request for an interview.

The November 2020 assault charge should have sparked another hearing in Perry’s court for another violation of Gordon’s 2018 probation. But a probation officer failed to report the arrest to the judge, according to court documents filed the day after James’s killing.

A Kentucky Department of Corrections spokesperson said the conviction should have been reported to the court.

At the time, Gordon was under the strictest level of supervised probation in district court: Misdemeanor Intensive Probation (MIP). The program requires weekly check-ins with probation officers, night curfews and random home visits.

Probation officers assigned to the MIP program have high case loads and some told Sack in her 2018 review that they were being burdened by cases that didn’t require the high-level of supervision they were expected to provide.

"Probation officials felt that the MIP Program was effective at supervising domestic violence offenders, but that other types of cases were taking up slots in MIP which were not meant for this type of victim-sensitive intensive monitoring,” Sack said in her report.

She recommended local officials investigate how cases were assigned to the MIP program. The recommendation is marked as incomplete.

A special court?

Much of what’s wrong with Louisville domestic violence response could be helped with a specialized domestic violence court, said Sack in her 2018 report.

Currently, domestic violence cases are divided among five separate courtrooms in which judges also handle an array of other criminal matters. A 2019 pilot program that aimed to narrow that focus with four designated domestic violence courts was halted after pandemic protocols virtually shut down the courthouse.

Specialized domestic violence courts can better serve victims, reduce recidivism among offenders and allow prosecutors and judges to become familiar with individual domestic violence cases, which are complex and intimate, according to the Center for Court Innovation, a criminal justice nonprofit based in New York City that studies court practices and strategies.

In her 2018 report, Sack said they could also help increase the number of trials in domestic violence cases.

Fewer than 1% of 9,122 domestic violence charges were taken to trial in Jefferson District Court between October 2014 and September 2017 — a rate that’s low compared with other urban courts, according to Sack’s report.

“Where domestic violence cases are treated like any others, they are bargained like typical cases, particularly for misdemeanors,” she said. “But domestic cases are not like typical misdemeanors, and frequently indicate far more dangerous behavior.”

More trials, even ones that don’t end with a conviction, are good for the long-term improvement of domestic violence response because they put the issue in front of people, Sack said. Trials can expose shortcomings in evidence collection, show where judges and prosecutors need more training and send a message to offenders that plea agreements aren't guaranteed.

A specialty domestic violence court is considered a “major project” from Sack’s 2018 report. 

In an interview last week, she said that’s one thing she’d expect to be a priority as work to remedy the court’s issues begins again.

But Jefferson District Judge David Bowles, who helped lead the domestic court pilot project in 2019, said he doesn’t think they’re a good idea.

He said Jefferson District Court judges aren’t elected to work specifically with domestic violence cases and he worries about the outcome if a judge assigned to a domestic violence court is “overly harsh or overly lenient.”

“Defendants should have the opportunity to be heard by different judges in multiple courts,” he said.

Chief District Judge Annette Karem did not respond to a request for comment on when, or if, the pilot project will restart.

No uproar

Elizabeth Wessels-Martin said her stomach sank when she saw the Amber Alert buzz across her phone last month and read the subsequent news coverage. 

As the chief executive officer for the Center for Women and Families, she had a sense then of the domestic violence abuse that was likely connected to the incident, and now she questions where the system failed: Why didn’t the prosecutors pursue the felony case? Why wasn’t Gordon under closer supervision?

James was doing everything she was supposed to, Wessels-Martin said. She’d reported her abuser to police, and she’d sought at least one court protective order. 

“There are supposed to be systems in place that provide protection,” Wessels-Martin said. “I don’t understand it.”

Domestic violence is a public health issue that has tentacles of trauma that stretch well beyond the direct victims, she said. In James’s killing, there are many victims: She was a mother to four children, she had parents and other family, friends and neighbors.

But missing from the aftermath of James’s death, and from the countless more cases of close calls and abuse across the city, is the uproar, said Wessels-Martin.

“We don’t get all worked up about this. That’s what frustrates us,” she said.“How many people have moved on without Angelica James?”

Reporter Jacob Ryan can be reached at [email protected]

This article first appeared on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.