Sustained Outrage

Study highlights domestic violence’s lasting reach

domesticviolence.jpgOne of the most powerful images for me from the Desmond Clark sentencing earlier this month happened as I walked out of the courthouse after the hearing. Judge Jim Stucky had imposed a life sentence for Clark’s murder of Na’lisha Gravely, the 19-year-old mother of his son, the cameras had gone and the media had dispersed. There, talking calmly on the sidewalk, stood Tina Gravely, Na’lisha’s mother, and Valerie Clark, Desmond’s mother.

It was a sad reminder that these women are linked forever, not just by the tragedy that happened in the Patrick Street Taco Bell last July, but because De’mahjae, the grandson they share, has now effectively lost both of his parents forever.

I thought of this moment as I read about a new academic study, conducted by Solveig Vatnar, a PhD. candidate at the University of Oslo. Vatnar interviewed 157 survivors of domestic violence, and her conclusions speak for themselves.

Violence inflicted by an intimate partner lasts longer if the couple has children together, and the violence continues after the relationship ends. In addition, children are harmed more by witnessing violence between their parents than previously thought.

“Our analyses show that violence by an intimate partner lasts longer for women who have children, even when we control for the duration of the couple’s relationship,” Vatnar told Anita Haslie, a writer with KILDEN, an information center for gender research in Norway.

In other words, being a mother does not protect a woman from violence. It has no significance for the severity of the violence, the type of injury sustained by the woman, the frequency of the violent episodes or whether the violence is perceived as life-threatening. If the couple has children together, the risk that violent episodes will continue after the break-up also increases.

Vatnar also found that the victims’ version of events should not be discounted, because they often provide the best insight into a situation once it has reached a crisis point. Police officers in particular may want to take note:

“Studies also show that the women themselves judged the threat involved as well as the best threat assessment instruments. If a woman was wrong, it was because she underestimated the threat. This means that when someone contacts the police, it is usually a high-risk situation that needs to be taken seriously,” says Vatnar.

“I compare this to a heart attack. We don’t refuse to dispatch an ambulance when someone has symptoms that resemble a heart attack just because we have had cases of false alarm.”

Supreme Court sets new precedents in domestic violence

It was big news last week when the state Supreme Court reversed and vacated Tonya Harden’s 2007 murder conviction. Harden, you will recall, killed her husband, Danuel Harden, with a shotgun he had used to beat and threaten her during what Justice Menis Ketchum described as a “night of domestic terror.”

Tonya Harden(That’s Harden’s booking photo, from September 2004, on the right. Her two black eyes are obvious, but the puncture wound to her right forearm, bruising to her chest and arms and her fractured nose aren’t visible.)

By a 4-1 vote, with Chief Justice Brent Benjamin dissenting, the justices ruled that the physical and sexual assaults by Harden’s husband and his threats to kill her and their children informed her state of mind and were relevant to her claim of self-defense.

As Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Associated Press’ Tim Huber have pointed out here and here, the 44-page opinion sets some new precedents in West Virginia law. It’s a pretty big deal when the Supreme Court issues new precedent, so the new syllabus points are worth repeating here:

–Where a defendant has asserted a plea of self-defense, evidence showing that the decedent had previously abused or threatened the life of the defendant is relevant evidence of the defendant’s state of mind at the time deadly force was used. In determining whether the circumstances formed a reasonable basis for the defendant to believe that he or she was at imminent risk of serious bodily injury or death at the hands of the decedent, the inquiry is two-fold. First, the defendant’s belief must be subjectively reasonable, which is to say that the defendant actually believed, based upon all the circumstances perceived by him or her at the time deadly force was used, that such force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. Second, the defendant’s belief must be objectively reasonable when considering all of the circumstances surrounding the defendant’s use of deadly force, which is to say that another person, similarly situated, could have reasonably formed the same belief. Our holding in Syllabus Point 6 of State v. McMillion, 104 W.Va. 1, 138 S.E. 732 (1927), is expressly overruled.

–Where it is determined that the defendant’s actions were not reasonably made in self-defense, evidence that the decedent had abused or threatened the life of the defendant is nonetheless relevant and may negate or tend to negate a necessary element of the offense(s) charged, such as malice or intent.

–An occupant who is, without provocation, attacked in his or her home, dwelling or place of temporary abode, by a co-occupant who also has a lawful right to be upon the premises, may invoke the law of self-defense and in such circumstances use deadly force, without retreating, where the occupant reasonably believes, and does believe, that he or she is at imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury. In determining whether the circumstances formed a reasonable basis for the occupant to believe that he or she was at imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury at the hands of the co-occupant, the inquiry is two-fold. First, the occupant’s belief must be subjectively reasonable, which is to say that the occupant actually believed, based upon all the circumstances perceived by him or her at the time deadly force was used, that such force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. Second, the occupant’s belief must be objectively reasonable when considering all of the circumstances surrounding the occupant’s use of deadly force, which is to say that another person, similarly situated, could have reasonably formed the same belief. Our decision in Syllabus Point 2, State v. Crawford, 66 W.Va. 114, 66 S.E. 110 (1909), is expressly overruled.

Some good news on the domestic violence front

The news about domestic violence is so often tragic and brutal — such as Thursday’s conviction of a former prison guard for beating his 5-year-old daughter to death — that I thought I’d highlight some recent positive developments.

First, the state Supreme Court has now completed its regional summits on guns and domestic violence. (A statewide summit is scheduled for September.)

In addition to providing information about West Virginia’s now-active electronic domestic violence protective order registry, the two-day seminars brought together various people (law enforcement, prosecutors, victims’ advocates, judicial officers) who routinely deal with batterers and their victims. Attendees spent part of each summit brainstorming about how to best develop a new protocol for handling domestic violence cases, with a special focus on removing guns from the equation.

(Why? As Lisa Tackett, the Supreme Court’s director of Family Court Services reminded summit attendees in Charleston on Monday, there were 22 domestic violence-related deaths in West Virginia in 2008: 17 homicides and 5 suicides. All but three of those deaths were caused by a gun.)

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Happy Domestic Violence Prevention Day!

purple_ribbon_300.jpgToday is Domestic Violence Prevention Day at the state Legislature, and I spent a few minutes this morning dropping by the booths (journalists love free pens!) and chatting with some folks from the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

While there, I picked up a handbook published by the Coalition called “For a Safer State of Family.” Even a quick scan of the booklet provides some pretty eye-popping statistics, which bear repeating here:

And domestic violence doesn’t stop with intimate partners:

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Domesic violence and the legislative process, part 2

A piece of paper won’t stop a bullet.

That’s the platitude that gets trotted out every time a person is killed by someone who is the subject of a domestic violence protective order. (Recall Gina Sigmond, who was murdered alongside a family friend when they went to retrieve items from her Sissonville home in February 2008. And Na’lisha Gravely, who was shot and killed in Taco Bell on the West Side, allegedly by her longtime boyfriend Desmond D. Clark, in July. Both women had active emergency protective orders against the men believed to have gunned them down.) Statistics tell us that almost two thirds of the time someone is killed in a domestic violence-related incident in West Virginia, it is with a gun.

As it now stands, it is already illegal — with actual criminal penalties — to possess a gun after a domestic violence protective order has been issued following a family court hearing. These hearings, which require that both parties have prior notice, usually happen about two weeks after the initial complaint.

There are currently no penalties proscribed by the Legislature specifically for having a gun while subject to an emergency domestic violence order. By law, that emergency order (issued after a victim voluntarily asks a magistrate for one) bans the subject from having a gun. State code says this: “If the magistrate court determines to enter an emergency protective order, the order shall prohibit the respondent from possessing firearms.”

But who is supposed to implement this ban? What happens if you disobey a magistrate’s order?

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TRI making a comeback

chemicalplant.jpg

I wrote recently about efforts to urge President Obama to reverse some Bush administration rules that weakened the requirements for companies to report to the public and regulators about toxic chemical releases.

Well, guess what?

According to today’s Washington Post, at least some of the Bush rollbacks in the Toxics Release Inventory program  are being fixed as part of the massive spending bill Obama signed into law yesterday.

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Domestic violence and the legislative process

gun.jpgRecently I’ve been attending meetings of the state Supreme Court’s “New Technology/Technology Improvement Subcommittee — Grants to Encourage Arrest Policies & Enforcement of Protection Orders Grant Committee,” i.e. the group tasked with getting the domestic violence protective order electronic database up and running.

It’s a complicated process, to say the least, made only more so by the strict requirements for submitting local information in the National Crime Information Center. (A statewide registry, which the Legislature ordered the State Police to create way back in 2001, would represent a huge step forward, but also plugging West Virginia’s information into the nationwide network gives law enforcement throughout the country immediate, 24/7 access to a list of protection orders, and who might be violating them.)

As of the last meeting on Feb. 25, three counties are feeding electronic registry information to NCIC. (Look for a big press conference announcing the registry’s progress next week.) Court officials and other committee members won’t set a date for when all 55 counties will be up and running, but it looks to be months away at the earliest.

In the meantime, two bills have been introduced during the current Legislative session to help streamline the registry and empower law enforcement to seize any guns in possession of someone being arrested for violating a protective order.

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