Domestic Violence Homicide: crafting protective orders with teeth and laws to support victims in fear of being murdered

Domestic violence homicide shares common red flag warnings that are discernible when prosecutors take time to connect the dots.

In Maine, Texas, and across America, the criminal justice system – including prosecutors, too often fail to protect victims of domestic and family violence from their abusers — even when the “red flag” warning signs are obvious as they were in both these cases. In this post, and the March 15 post, I talk about the importance of report writing and truly  understanding DV on a visceral or gut level. To truly understand what is going to happen requires a realization that just below the surface may lie a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

What happens next?  The failure to see what danger exists as officers interview victim and abuser. This is often because no dangerous assessment has been initiated and secondly, because there are too few prosecutors and judges who connect the dots and understand the cycle of domestic violence. Protective orders must contain contingencies for those abusive partners who do not respect the order of protection and violate its provisions at will. Any violation should be met with revocation of bail and immediate arrest. 

I will post the 10 risk factors below for specific warning signs common to DVH. This begs the question, why are cases of domestic violence homicide not more fully examined with a psychological autopsy? These examinations might add to the body of knowledge and create impetus for change in DV law including bail conditions as suggested in the Maine Law Review in 2012 and again in 2017. There needs to be more bite to protective orders so that victims can move on with their lives rather than live in constant fear as I have posted over and over. Recently, in 2017, the Maine Law Review listed changes in bail conditions that were recommended by Nicole Bissonnette, an attorney and member of faculty at University Law School in Portland, Maine. Heretofore, these have been largely ignored by legislators in Maine. Ms. Bissonnette has written about Bail reform in at least 2 papers published in the Maine Law Review as noted above. I will write about these two Maine Law Review papers shortly.

In early 2021, the police in Austin,Texas were beset by a horrific case of domestic violence homicide. On April 18, 2021, a former police officer killed the family while picking up his son for a monthly supervised visit. The child’s mother encouraged these visits as important to the boy’s development and relationship with his violent and sadistic father. While exchanging pleasantries, the child’s father shot and killed his former wife and step-daughter.  And he killed his daughter’s young boy friend and immediately fled. Detective Broderick was captured 20 hours later and is being held. Yes, the abused was a former law enforcement officer. 

Texas law requires surrender of all guns following a domestic assault. The question remains, had Broderick been relieved of his firearms or did he acquire a weapon after leaving the police department? In Texas, “timely relinquishment of firearms is an essential dynamic of violence prevention. We must work together to ensure that individuals subject to a weapon forfeiture order surrender their firearms immediately” according to Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza in a May 2021 story. So we are led to believe that he turned in his firearms and was relieved of his license to carry a concealed weapon. It is not specifically reported that these conditions were met. However, as it pertains to GPS monitoring a judge believed that because he had been compliant with conditions of his release, including wearing the GPS ankle bracelet for 3 months, that it was no longer required. Why?

This comes in response to the murder of three members of a single family, allegedly by a former police detective who had been ordered to stay away from his wife and step-daughter. He was in direct violation of the order. His court-approved  visitation with his son was to be supervised and on April 18, 2021 during a time where Mr. Broderick was to pick up his son, the murderous assault was initiated: killing 3, including his former wife and adopted daughter. What were the red flag triggers? Was something missed?

In the Texas case there were people who knew what might occur, like murder of former wife, the issues surrounding Broderick and his loss of employment and pending felony trial were among the many triggering factors.

Common sense look at facts

Police need broad discretionary authority in dealing with any violation of orders of protection including no bail holds and danger risk assessment

Following the 2020 arrest for sexual assault of a child, Broderick resigned from the Travis County Sheriff’s Department. He was initially held on $100,000 bond. A family friend remarked, “I kind of had a feeling that this is where he was going, because he was lost,” she explained. “He lost everything. He lost his family. There was a protective order for a reason.” He was lost?  That gives him the right to violently kill his former wife, adopted daughter, and her male friend? Many in our society are lost and do not go on to commit violent homicide.

Like the Austin homicide, in other cases I have reviewed, trends “someone knew” what would happen if the abuser was released from custody. This is a red flag. And facts indicate Mr. Broderick had a violent history including rape of a child and most certainly should have been kept in custody through his trial. What possible good could come from releasing this man into society? And more specifically, why was the victim’s plea for greater protection apparently ignored? At the very least, Mr. Broderick should have been wearing the GPS monitoring bracelet when he was out of custody. The judge who allowed him to stop wearing the GPS monitor should be removed from the bench for such a poor judgement call that she indicated was based on her experience with usual cases. This was not one of the “usual” cases and the fact that someone knew what might happen and kept quiet is despicable and should be made a felony crime of obstruction of justice.Any threat of death and use of firearm removes anything usual about a case of intimate partner violence.

The 16-year old child, who was among the victims, begged for a more restrictive supervision of her step-father who had been released from jail and was not required to wear an ankle bracelet after only a period of 3 months. An order of protection was brought against former police detective. There was a protection order in place but even the teen knew that orders of protection were “not worth the paper they were written on.” 

“Because Mr. Broderick committed this heinous crime after he paid a money bond to be released on charges related to sexual assault against a child, Texas law permits his detention without bail.” Wes Wilson, KXAN television Austin, TX

There is a case to be made for careful analysis of behavioral health functioning of abusers. That seems to be common sense right? But this sometimes does not occur. As a law enforcement officer in Massachusetts, I made an effort to introduce risk assessment tools to quantify a subject’s dangerousness. This is important but is not yet universally adopted here in Massachusetts. Nearly 10 years on, the psychological autopsy conducted in 2011, looked at the red flag warnings that are common to DVH everywhere – including the case in Austin. What brought my attention to the case in Maine was the purported prosecutorial impotence argued by Christopher Almy, the county district attorney, that there was “nothing that could be done to protect the victim, Amy Lake and her two children, from her estranged husband Stephen Lake. That statement was inspiring. Imagine if you and your family were depending upon the police to protect you as Amy Lake was? Everything that could be done was in place. But the protection order had no teeth. So Steven Lake snuck into the Amy’s home at 5 AM and staged a despicable murder scene, ultimately killing the children he claimed to love while Amy was forced to watch. Ending with her shotgun murder and is own death by suicide. 

“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger the emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” Michael Sefton (2016)

In an article on the 8th Amendment regarding bail in cases of domestic violence, the Maine Law Review, first in 2012 and an updated second publication in 2017, cited the importance of carefully crafted conditions of bail especially among men who are found to have violated the conditions often by stalking and using social media to intimidate and contact potential victims also by trolling family members in an effort to locate estranged spouse and her children who may be in hiding. Both Amy Lake and Austin, TX mother of 3 expressed an interest in having children remain in contact with extended family in spite of pending serious criminal charges. This opened up access to the perpetrator to information about current living arrangements, employment, after school activities, and other potential clues that raised the risk of further domestic violence and ultimately DVH. In Austin, the victim expressed a wish to allow her estranged husband to have contact with the little boy – his son in spite of pending felony charges brought forth by the 16-year old step-daughter who rightfully feared for her life. Why was her fear ignored or minimized given her history of having been sexually assaulted by her adoptive father and his animosity toward her for reporting the abuse to law enforcement. He blamed her for his loss of career and status as a local detective with the Travis County Sheriff’s Department.

Firearms are a major cause of DVH and in every state are required to be taken from men with active protection orders in place. This was the default expectation in the two cases described here but in the case of Stephen Lake his arsenal of 22 firearms were not removed from his possession in spite of court orders.  Similarly, the Austin killer was left with at least one firearm used to kill his family.  Lake left 9 suicide notes many of which were rambling, angry tirades toward his wife and in laws.  The Austin killer did not take his own life and was captured. This is atypical especially among law enforcement officers raising the specter of possible psychological analysis of his motives. This make the two cases in this post very different at this level. To what extent Texas authorities will endeavor to understand the events that preceded the murders remains unclear although, like the Aurora theater shooting, having a bad guy to study is rare. This means nothing, aside from an opportunity for personality and psyhopathology to be brought up at trial perhaps allowing Mr Broderick to avoid death row.  There is not much in the public media since the crime and his capture. However, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the red flag warnings in this case is recommended and will add to the body of literature on domestic violence. Why he chose not to kill himself is itself a mystery. 

One could argue that the Austin killer shared several commonalities with the Maine case including sexual violence, threats of death, pathological jealousy, violation of the order of protection. The Austin murderer, Mr. Broderick was a SWAT trained police officer who resigned his position after being arrested for sexual assault on his step daughter.  He should not have had a firearm pending the outcome of his case. Stephen Lake, on the other hand, would never stand trial – something he knew was a fact. Lake was keen on the idea that the cost of his divorce was a mere $0.35 cents – about the cost of one bullet. In this case his sister and aunt understood how angry and troubled Mr. Lake had become and said nothing, until we conducted our hours-long interview for the psychological autopsy.

Domestic violence homicide risk factors

  1. Threatens to kill spouse if she leaves him – pathological jealousy
  2. Actual use of firearm or other weapon anytime during domestic violence incident
  3. Access to firearms even if he never used them – veiled threats
  4. Attempt at strangulation ever during fight
  5. Forced sex anytime during relationship
  6. Unemployment of perpetrator
  7. Stalking via social media – one or both spouse use social media to intimidate or garner support
  8. Presence of unrelated “step” child in home
  9. Spouse finds new relationship soon after separating
  10. Low bail release from custody – high bail holds are essential in DVH mitigation

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