Commentary

Domestic Violence and the Maine Homicide Review Panel

Posted:  Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 7:15am
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In the past forty years there has been a significant change in the way many people view domestic and sexual violence. It is far from perfect but also far from the culture and beliefs that existed decades ago. We have laws in place that provide some legal remedies to victims of violence. There is a network of nonprofit agencies that provide advocates and support services to victims of domestic violence. Law enforcement agencies work collaboratively with domestic violence advocates to best serve the needs of victims and to hold batterers accountable. There are improvements in the way Child Protective Services and domestic violence advocates work with victims of domestic violence when children are present. We have provided a tremendous amount of education in this state about domestic violence and where a victim can get help. That is the good news. Still, in Maine, the domestic violence homicide rate comprises approximately 50 percent of all homicides that occur here each year. That is unacceptable.

The Boothbay region is no stranger to domestic homicide.

In 2004, the Boothbay region was shocked when Chellie Calloway and Sally Murray were murdered by Calloway’s estranged husband and Murray’s son, Jon Dilley. Dilley was convicted and sentenced to serve two consecutive 30-year terms. In 2008, Dilley was denied an appeal by Maine’s highest court and will serve out his sentence at the Maine State Prison. These murders had a tremendous impact on the Boothbay region and ignited grassroot efforts to talk about domestic violence openly and publicly. The Boothbay Region Domestic Abuse Council was formed and supported local education and the work of New Hope for Women on the peninsula for several years.

Again, on July 4, 2015, the double murders of Carol Jorgensen and her son, Eric were discovered by local law enforcement. Svend Jorgensen, the husband of Carol and father of Eric, was identified as the shooter in this case and he subsequently committed suicide. The case shocked the community and has left so many unanswered questions to this day. What happened that day is the same as any other domestic homicide: One person decided that they had the right to take the life of others. That is arguably the most egregious abuse of power by one person over another.

In 1997, the Maine Legislature charged the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse to create a Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel (see 19-A M.R.S. §4013[4]). The purpose was to create a panel to “review the deaths of persons who are killed by family or household members.” The Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, authorized by legislation, is a multidisciplinary collaborative that provides a retrospective analysis of domestic abuse-related homicides. The purpose of the review is to develop recommendations to improve the coordinated community responses to people impacted by domestic violence. The murder(s) of Chellie Calloway, Sally Murray, and Carol and Eric Jorgensen would have been reviewed by the panel, resulting in some specific recommendations and observations that could reduce certain risks in other cases going forward.

The panel is led by the Maine Office of the Attorney General and presently serves under the leadership of Attorney General Janet T. Mills. The Panel Chairperson is Lisa Marchese, a Deputy Attorney General. The Panel Coordinator is Susan Fuller, who has the task of gathering and disseminating all facts pertaining to a case. She also keeps detailed notes of each case reviewed that is later synthesized into a meaningful document that highlights the panel’s observations and recommendations that are gathered over a two-year period.

The panel provides recommendations and observations that ideally will bring forth systemic changes that reduce the risk of serious injury and/or death in domestic abuse cases. In order to effectively do this, the panel must look at changes in laws, rules and practices that would improve the responsiveness to victims. Some of the most challenging work for the panel is implementing and monitoring the recommendations put forth in each biennial report. This is the most critical aspect of the report as it has the possibility of mitigating risk and reducing domestic abuse homicide. One of the effective ways this has been done is through meetings with Fuller and law enforcement agencies across Maine. Fuller has brought the report and recommendations “out on the road” and has had very positive feedback from those that have participated.

When a case is reviewed by the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, the panel members are given documents that provide a history of the relationship between the victim and perpetrator with the chronology of events that preceded the murders. This can include transcripts of interviews held by law enforcement in the aftermath of a homicide. There are often photographs of the crime scene to help the panel member see the crime scene. This information prepares the panel member for the review and allows them a chance to formulate more questions at the meeting. On the day of the review, there is a professional presentation provided to the panel by law enforcement who responded to the scene. It is an intensive look at every detail that is known and typically, the state and local law enforcement officials presenting at a panel discussion have the most intimate knowledge of all aspects of the case. The meeting typically takes three hours and will conclude with a series of recommendations and observations offered by the membership.

On June 30, the panel released the 11th biennial report entitled: “On the Path to Prevention.” This report was based on the 16 cases that occurred between 2011 and 2015. The report is dedicated to “family members who, not only contend with the tragic losses of their loved ones, but also open their hearts and homes to the surviving children of domestic abuse homicide victims.” One of the observations in this report was that “a number of perpetrators were known to have warned their partners in effect that ‘if I can’t have you, then no one will,’ before seriously injuring or killing them. The panel continues to review case after case in which a perpetrator’s coercive controlling and violent behaviors, including the ultimate act of homicide, stem from a deep belief of entitlement and ownership of an intimate partner.

The report states that, “in the cases reviewed perpetrators’ patterns of coercive and controlling behaviors often include suicidality, stalking and strangulation. All 16 perpetrators displayed one or more of these tactics. These tactics are high risk behaviors indicating a potential for lethality.

At the June 30 press conference, Mills responded to this saying, “These warning signs must be taken seriously. Take threats of suicide to be real. If you leave a controlling partner, do not return home without the assistance of law enforcement. If you are a medical or mental health professional, ask patients whether they are safe in their homes and let them know there are resources available. Listen to your family, friends and neighbors encountering domestic problems. Offer them assistance. You could save a life.” I would like to thank Mills for lending her guidance and leadership on domestic violence in an effort to create a safer and better place for all of us to live.

The work of this panel has special meaning for me because I was given the opportunity to serve as a member for nine years. It was the most meaningful work of my career and likely the most humbling and rewarding. I am a family survivor of domestic homicide. My father’s sister, Haddie Stover Herring, was murdered in 1966 in an apparent murder-suicide. In those days, there was no discussion of domestic violence or the impact to families who are left behind. We did not know about the deleterious effects of domestic violence on children who witness domestic violence or survive a related homicide. I grew up knowing about my Aunt’s death but did not understand the impact of it until much later in my professional life when I worked with people who had survived many types of trauma. As I reflect on my professional career, many of the paths I took along the way led me to work in domestic and sexual violence. That road may have begun for me with my Aunt’s homicide and the impact that had on my own family and my life. It is a path that has always been rich with many blessings and rewards. I am truly grateful to the Maine Domestic Homicide Review Panel and the many years of sitting at that table making a difference.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call New Hope for Women at 1-800-522-3304.