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Advocates say courts are failing domestic violence victims after 24-year-old mother's death

A 23-year-old mother sat before a judge in April, walking back almost every claim she made to Houston police about her allegedly abusive ex-boyfriend.

    • No, she was never in fear for her life or the life of their 9-month-old child.
    • No, he did not put a gun to her head and threaten to kill her and her mom.
    • No, she made up the story about him violating a court order to stay away from her.

Months later — after the jurist heard her testimony, rejected a motion to revoke Zacchaeus Gaston’s bail and instead lowered it — police said he killed the woman, Layla Steele.

It’s now impossible to know what the truth was in that spring court hearing. But advocates say the event highlights a recurring issue where court officials fail to support domestic violence survivors and prepare them for success in the courtroom. Initial reporting of abuse is rarely false, one advocate said, yet recanting testimony is incredibly common.

“We have to remember that the client is the expert,” said Jacklyn Guerra, manager of legal services for the Houston Area Women’s Center. “That person, that victim, has lived with him. She knows what pisses him off, what makes him happy, how he acts when he’s drunk.”

“When she recants,” she said, speaking generally about survivors, “it’s because she knows what he’s capable of beyond that courtroom.”

Gaston was out on bonds for five felonies and two misdemeanors, making him one of 141 defendants between 2017 and 2021 who were out on seven or more bonds in Harris County. He was one of two people on that list who have since been charged with murder.

Steele’s mother, Shirley Steele, said she was on the phone with her daughter during the incident that was the subject of the April court hearing. She called the police herself when her daughter said they “got into it” and Gaston violated the restraining order. Scared, she hid at a neighbor’s home until authorities arrived, the mother said.

“She probably recanted because she was afraid of him,” she said. “She would have done anything he said. She told them how afraid she was.”

Reasons for recanting

Guerra knows stories like Steele’s can deter survivors from testifying, but she said groups such as the Houston Area Women’s Center can help.

It’s unknown whether Steele was represented by any such nonprofit. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office did advocate on her behalf, telling the judge to take her initial reported statements as word.

The DA’s office last year grew its number of victims assistance counselors and has donated money to the Houston Area Women’s Center, but a spokesman said the office and its partners could make use of more resources.

“Our prosecutors who specialize in domestic violence brought the court plenty of evidence that this defendant was a danger to his family and the community,” Dane Schiller, spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement. “He was released and now he is charged with murder. The family and our community mourn the loss of another domestic violence victim murdered by a habitual offender free on multiple bonds over the objection of prosecutors.”

At the time of Steele’s death on July 1, when she was 24, Gaston faced felony charges of assault impeding breathing, failure to register as a sex offender, possession with intent to deliver, evading arrest, felon in possession of a weapon and evading arrest with a previous conviction. He also faced misdemeanor assault and evading charges. His attorney, Jeanie Ortiz, did not respond to requests for comment.

Knowledge of an abuser’s capabilities leads survivors to make near-daily choices on what is best for their safety, said Maisha Colter, CEO of the nonprofit Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse. That extends to recanting testimony.

“They appear to help the abuser, but sometimes they’re trying to help themselves,” Colter said.

Other reasons people recant testimony are language barriers in the courtroom, fears over immigration status, financial dependencies on the defendant and threats made by the abuser, even from jail.

Groups such as Colter’s provide survivors legal aid in courtrooms, but not all women know of the resources — even free ones — available to them.

“I think we need to take some responsibility there,” Guerra said. “What type of assessments are we doing? Are we building rapport?”

What fear can do

One Houston police officer described the April 4 disturbance that prosecutors said violated Gaston’s protective order, noting that Steele was “visibly terrified.”

She told the officer Gaston was going to assault her, and when Gaston saw police and ran, Steele broke down crying.

“She was in an anxious state,” he said. “I later found out she was scared … if we’re not going to catch him. … She didn’t know what he was going to do.”

Steele took the stand and relayed a different story, saying she’d lied about being in fear for her life because she was angry with him for refusing to bring her baby out of a Westpark apartment — she claimed it was because he didn’t want to violate a protective order.

Gaston hadn’t ever threatened or assaulted her, and he hadn’t come by her work place or her home, Steele testified.

“Like, I was so mad,” she said in court. “I wanted the baby. … I felt like I had to say what I had to say just to put him in jail. I understand where I was wrong in that situation.”

Prosecutor Bailee Pender also asked Steele about a Sept. 25, 2020, incident: Steele told police that Gaston cocked a handgun, pointed it in her face and said he was going to kill her and her mother if she left the residence, according to the testimony. She recanted her account.

And when Pender later asked whether Gaston threatened to “F you up” on April 4, Steele pleaded the Fifth Amendment.

Steele paid for all of Gaston’s bonds, which she claimed she wouldn’t have done if she was scared.

“No, I would have left him right there,” Steele said.

Wrong address

Because Gaston was on a condition of home confinement, state District Judge Natalia Cornelio said she would reduce his bond. The prosecutors couldn’t adequately prove their case beyond a preponderance of evidence, because the Westpark address was distinct from what was on his bond conditions.

“I wish there was more,” Cornelio said. “But based on what I heard today, it’s a very close call.”

Cornelio lowered bail from $250,000 to $50,000 on Gaston’s newest charge of violating a protective order. The judge did not respond to a request for comment. Jurists do not speak about individual cases because of canon that prevents them from doing so.

Colter added that judges can’t usually provide the support that survivors are looking for.

“Positionally, the judge is not an advocate,” she said. “They’re just there to call balls and strikes.”

Gaston posted bail in May. Less than two months later, police said he killed the woman who advocated for him in court. He’s now back in jail, being held in lieu of posting $8 million in surety bonds for new murder and aggravated assault charges.

Shirley Steele knew how much her daughter loved Gaston — how much she was scared of him, too. Women in similar positions should use the resources they have to get out if possible, she said.

“If y’all are in a situation like that, I don’t care how much he loves you,” she said. “He hits you one time — get out of it, it’s not worth it at all. I’d give anything to get my daughter back.”

Nicole Hensley contributed to this report.