When David Duyst reported his wife, Sandra’s suicide in March 2000, police officers had good reasons to believe him. Friends and family said she had been increasingly irritable and depressed after having been kicked in the head by her horse the previous year. Voicemails left for her husband three months earlier were despondent, urging him to go on without her. A gun was found near her hand. It was only after a note written by Sandra and warning that her husband wanted her dead that the yarn in her husband’s story began to unravel; the “horse kick” turned out to be a battering and the devoted husband turned out to be an adulterer who had just insured his wife for half a million dollars.’
Sandra Duyst isn’t the only victim of domestic homicide to speak from beyond the grave. Three months before her death, a Sydney woman named Rita Caleo sent a letter to her solicitor in a sealed envelope titled: “To be opened only if my death is unnatural.” It goes on to ask that, if she was murdered, the investigation should be directed to her husband as he was having an affair and was angry that she was in the process of cutting him out of her will. Her husband was sentenced to 12 years after hiring an employee to stab her 23 times.
And, of course, plenty of women speak out about what is happening to them before they are silenced forever.
Assessing Danger: Which Domestic Violence Victims Will Wind Up Dead?
Domestic violence victims know they are in danger. So do friends and family, mental health professionals and law enforcement. However, in the context of an abusive relationship, it’s historically been hard to judge just how deadly serious the abuse is. Fortunately, we are learning more and more about what most batterers-turned-murderers have in common and how they act before their violence becomes lethal.
For example, seventy five percent of the time, there is a history of domestic violence before a victim is murdered by a spouse or lover; 68% of the time, the couple is in the middle of an actual or pending separation. Oftentimes, the violence has escalated over the past year and involved serious physical violence such as an attempted strangling, previous rape, or a previous threat with a weapon. Batterers who kill also tend to have a history of making death threats, using drugs and alcohol use, and having access to a gun.
These are not subtle clues and yet, time and again, the legal system fails to protect women who do everything right and still lose their lives; dead women like Stephanie Riddle who warned police her boyfriend would kill her if they didn’t arrest him or Laura Aceves whose chronically abusive boyfriend violated numerous protective orders and was out on bail when her murdered her in front of their 4-month-old child.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
Ironically, death has been the only way some domestic homicide victims have been able to change the system - not for themselves but for those still hurting. Amy’s law, sponsored on behalf of Amy Therlaut, a young mother of two daughters whose ex-boyfriend murdered her four years ago, adds domestic violence to the victim as an aggravating factor in sentencing for murder. Maine judges will now consider stronger sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence murders. Tierne’s law, named for Tierne Ewing, who was murdered by her estranged husband after he held her captive for nearly two weeks, makes it tougher for batterers to make bail. In England, Clare’s law (named for 35-year-old Clare Woods, murdered by a boyfriend with an extensive history of battering other women which she knew nothing about) allows law enforcement to tell a current spouse or significant other about a history of violence towards other intimate partners.
Another irony is the fact that mass murder victims may wind up saving the lives of more domestic violence victims than generations of grim statistics and grassroots advocacy. As mass shootings have skyrocketed, it has become increasingly evident that no other
We don’t need any more martyrs to convince us of how devastating, and widespread, the impact of domestic violence is. We shouldn’t need any hidden notes or desperate pleas to convince us that a batterer is a lethal as his victim says he is, especially when the danger signs are visible to anyone. We can’t make a domestic violence victim leave an abusive relationship, but we ought to be able to protect her if she does.