AUGUSTA — More than half of the domestic abuse homicides reviewed by a state panel were committed by someone who exhibited suicidal behavior before killing or trying to kill a family member or partner.
The panel also found that a handgun was used in the majority of domestic violence homicides in Maine between 2009 and 2013.
Three of the victims of those domestic abuse homicides had protection from abuse orders against their killer, while five others had expired orders.
Of the 21 homicides studied by the panel, 14 were witnessed by children.
Those findings were one of several patterns revealed in a report released Thursday by the Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel. Professionals representing a cross-section of disciplines, including health professionals, law enforcement and attorneys comprise the panel, which reviewed adjudicated homicide cases that occurred between April 2009 and September 2013.
The panel used the information to develop nearly 60 recommendations, ranging from urging judges to use better penmanship, to stricter gun control, and encouraging faith communities to offer more support for victims of abuse.
Of the 21 homicides the panel reviewed, 17 were committed by an intimate partner, which means a current or former partner or spouse. The other four were intra-familial homicides, meaning the person was killed by a family member.
More than 66 percent of the killers — 14 out of the 21 — showed signs of suicidal behavior before committing or attempting to commit homicide. Seven of those subsequently killed themselves.
The suicidal behavior included giving away large sums of money, saying goodbyes, making amends, buying a handgun or threatening suicide.
“Threats of violence and threats of suicide must be taken seriously,” said Attorney General Janet Mills. “Telling your boyfriend or girlfriend, ‘I can’t live without you,’ can quickly cross from innocuous to devastating. In the context of an abusive relationship these utterances are veiled threats of violence, with a strong undercurrent of manipulation and control. Recognizing the signs of abuse is key to preventing homicide.”
The panel, which found that handguns are used in the majority of domestic violence homicides, made a number of recommendations involving firearms. The panel suggests the state take firearms away from anyone who makes homicidal or suicidal statements and that it create a repository of concealed handgun permits accessible only to law enforcement.
The repository would include information about the status of a permit, including whether it has been suspended or revoked. The panel also called on the judiciary to create a method to track whether weapons have been confiscated or turned over to someone else issuing protection from abuse orders.
“Firearms continue to be the weapon of choice,” said Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, who prosecutes homicide cases. “All too often the only difference between a battered woman and a dead woman is the existence of a gun.”
Julia Colpitts of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence said it is up to friends, family and neighbors to report what they see and hear and up to judges, doctors and other professionals to hold potential suspects accountable.
Colpitts referenced the domestic violence murder case against Jared Remy, who is charged with killing his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel. Remy, the son of Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy, is accused of stabbing Martel to death after a decades-long history of domestic violence charges that never led to a jail sentence.
The panel determined 10 of the homicides it reviewed were committed by serial abusers. Colpitts also said there have been cases where there has been a misuse of authority to overlook violent behavior.
“That needs to change,” she said. “When someone murders the very person they are supposed to cherish it rocks us to our core.”
Mills said three of the victims in the cases the panel reviewed had protection from abuse orders against the killer. Five others had protection from abuse orders that had expired. Mills said 14 of the homicides were witnessed by children.
“Fourteen children of all ages whose lives were forever changed and traumatized,” Mills said. “We must never forget those children.”
Other recommends the panel made:
• Create programs that enhance collaboration between law enforcement and resource centers.
• Urge health care providers to screen all patients for abuse and controlling behavior. The screenings should be private, regular and occur especially frequently during pregnancy.
• Offer consistent and ongoing school-based education about domestic abuse and dating violence.
• Create high risk response teams that include multi-disciplinary professionals in each county or region.
• Assign an investigator in each state police troop to receive specialized training in domestic violence investigations.
• Ask judges to use legible handwriting when filling out protection from abuse orders. “If court orders are not legible, they cannot be enforced,” the panelists wrote.
• Increasr training for court clerks, attorneys and judges about intervention programs.
Colpitts said people who have lost family members to domestic violence consistently urged the panel to make the deaths matter. Implementing the recommendations will help achieve that goal.
“They want to make sure that what happened to them will never happen to anyone else,” Colpitts said. “Our work doesn’t change the tragedy, but it offers one element of meaning.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642[email protected]Twitter: @CraigCrosby4