Domestic violence continues to place itself high on the list of hot topics in the national conversation. Professional sports figures contribute many high profile stories for the public and the media to put under the microscope, but every day, ordinary citizens are involved in cases that are much more emblematic of the everyday violence committed against domestic partners. Some victims go almost unnoticed, while other victims of the violence pay the ultimate price. Meanwhile, public officials charged with the responsibility for enforcing the existing domestic violence laws seem to go on with business as usual, seemingly overwhelmed by their daily exposure to all the violence and oblivious to people’s fundamental lack of respect towards those closest to them.

Murder, The Ultimate Price of Domestic Violence

When a woman is murdered by her husband, suddenly a community’s denial about the seriousness and the potential deadliness of domestic violence vanishes. Other women being battered realize they could be next, and often consider calling law enforcement or begin to seek restraining orders.

The victim’s family, their lives rocked by the loss, look to law enforcement for justice and to the community for support. Women activists take to the airwaves to counsel law enforcement and other officials who hopefully are at their most approachable about the changes that must be made if women are to be protected from this deadly violence.

Police and prosecutors will likely focus on the investigation of the homicide itself, not usually concerned with the pattern of indifference to violence that law enforcement has demonstrated prior to the murder. There is almost always a pattern, because domestic violence rarely comes from out of nowhere, often occurs after repeated and escalating violence, much of it reported to police who fail frequently to provide the intended protections of the law to the victim.

In the spring of 2013, a 911 dispatcher got a call from a Shingletown, California resident.

The dispatcher could hear the sounds of breathing and crying, and then loud bangs before the line went dead. When police arrived at the home, they found the bodies of Sandy Miller, and her two daughters, Shelby, 8, and Shasta, 5, dead from multiple gunshot wounds. Investigators of the triple murder came to believe that the woman’s husband, Shane Franklyn Miller, 45, was the lone suspect in the killings. The U.S. Marshals Service was quick to announce that they would add Mr. Miller to their list of the 15 most wanted fugitives.

Local crime reports indicated that Miller had threatened to kill his wife and the girls before, and he finally choose to carry out the murders on the day Sandy Miller planned to tell him she wanted a place of her own so she and her daughters could escape from the domestic violence.

Sandy Miller had sought to escape from her husband through the Shasta Women’s Refuge about two weeks before she and her daughters were killed, as relayed by officials with the refuge. During a prior domestic violence dispute, Sandy Miller left Shingletown and went to Humboldt County. Her husband followed her there the same day. He found her at a motel and brought her back to Shingletown, according to the Marshal’s Service.

“Sandy Miller told a Shasta County District Attorney investigator that Shane Miller was abusive. Shane Miller had discovered her whereabouts when she had previously left him and forced her to return,” the investigator said in an affidavit. “He also threatened to kill her and their daughters if she left him again. On the morning of the murders, Sandy Miller told her mother that she planned on telling Shane Miller later that day that she was leaving him.” Shane Miller also made threats to kill his mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her children, federal officials said.

Though warning signs were seen by multiple agencies, they all went unheeded by those who could have most easily made a difference.

Our Stereotypical Images of Domestic Violence

In spite of the stereotypical images we might have, the truth is that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. They can be of any age, sex, race, culture, religion, education, employment, or marital status. Most victims are women, but men, too, can fall prey. Women tend to be wary of strangers, but it is those closest, like a husband, a lover, a boyfriend, or another family member who is most likely to victimize them.

One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Three to four million women in the United States are beaten in their homes each year by their husbands, ex-husbands, or male lovers. One woman is beaten by her husband or partner every 15 seconds in the United States.

A critical juncture is often reached when a woman attempts to leave a relationship, no matter how abusive it has been. Women who leave relationships often have to opt to live in poverty, a very difficult choice to make. There are many social, cultural factors that contribute to encouraging women to stay and try and make the situation work. All too often, violence is a familiar pattern for the woman, as well as her partner.

Listening to men who abuse their wives, they often speak of how terribly inadequate their wives are. “She’s too lazy and doesn’t do what I tell her!” It is also incredibly evident that these abusive men are tremendously dependent on their partners. Fears of rejection, emotional withdrawal, and/or abandonment are major factors that actually cause these men to be violent. Men who batter women are often psychologically incapable of leaving the relationship.

We often think of domestic violence largely in terms of women, but abuse of men happens far more often than we realize. Though men are usually physically stronger than women, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they always escape violence in their relationships. An abused man, in particular, faces a shortage of resources, skepticism from police, and major legal obstacles, especially when it comes to gaining custody of his children from an abusive mother.

Male victims must deal with issues that most female victims don’t have to contend with. Victims of both genders are reluctant to report abuse because they are embarrassed, or they are afraid of making the problem worse. Male victims have to contend with their identity as a man, thinking of what their friends and family will think if it is discovered that they “let” a female partner abuse them. Statistics, gathered by the ManKind Initiative which campaigns for male abuse victims, show that a surprising 38 per cent of domestic abuse victims are male.

California’s Domestic Violence Laws

In effect since 2000, California’s Domestic Violence Laws have been called a patchwork of statutes that attempt to provide help for domestic violence victims. The laws, however, still leave untouched some of the biggest obstacles victims face. In general, California’s domestic violence laws are an honest attempt to prevent violence in familial or intimate relationships.

The state starts by identifying domestic violence as when an individual commits a criminal act within one of the types of relationships specified by the California Penal Code. These relationships are defined as a spouse or former spouse; cohabitant or former cohabitant in a home; a parent with whom the individual has a child; or a partner in a dating relationship. These classifications are adequate for most domestic violence situations.

The Penal Code criminalizes domestic violence under Section 273.5. It is a crime when an individual’s willful conduct leads to a “corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition” suffered by a person with whom the individual has one of the familial or intimate relationships specified by the domestic violence laws of California.

The Penal Code also criminalizes battery within one of the specified familial or intimate relationships. A prosecutor can choose to charge a defendant with battery under Section 243(d) if the defendant “inflicted serious bodily injury” on the victim. Battery under Section 243(d) reflects a greater degree of harm suffered by the victim of domestic violence.

As would seem likely, domestic violence often occurs in tandem with child abuse. To address this situation, a prosecutor may charge a defendant with a crime based on domestic violence, under several sections of the Penal Code that apply. A prosecutor chooses which criminal charges to pursue based on the severity of the conduct and harm to the victim, along with other circumstances of the case.

Pursuant to Penal Code §836, there are mandates for arrest when a defendant violates a restraining order. This law recognizes both the potential consequences of restraining order violations and the casual treatment these violations too often receive from police. California police are now mandated to arrest offenders who violate domestic violence restraining orders. There is a shortcoming in this legislation in that there is no equivalent obligation on a district attorney to prosecute cases of restraining order violations sent to them by police.

The Role of Prosecutors in Domestic Violence Cases

Despite opportunities presented by circumstances over the years, one critical aspect of crimes like rape, domestic violence, and child abuse has not been addressed by legislators. It is the district attorney’s absolute power to refuse to file charges no matter how solid the evidence. Though a district attorney may refuse to file charges on a whole crime category, there is no legal remedy for victims. The results of this unrestricted prosecutorial discretion was notably demonstrated in Sonoma County where the district attorney’s rate of conviction on domestic violence was one of the lowest in the state, and where cases of violence against women and children were systematically undercharged.

Though, overall, California does a fair job in domestic violence law enforcement, there is still considerable work to be done to make domestic violence laws effective in protecting victims and their children. The American Bar Association (ABA) recommends that states make legal assistance more available and affordable to victims of domestic violence and their children by encouraging lawyers to do pro bono work in domestic violence cases, expanding legal services programs to represent parents and children affected by domestic violence, establishing specialized legal clinics, and requiring abusers to pay court costs and attorney’s fees. Better education and training for judges and law enforcement personnel are also needed.

Daniel R. Perlman, Esq.

Law Offices of Daniel R. Perlman