NASHUA, N.H. (WOMENSENEWS)–During a period of four years, Jason Hodgdon was convicted of four crimes related to domestic abuse in New Hampshire, the last time this past February.

Within 19 months of each other, two women had sought one permanent and two temporary protective orders against him for threatening to kill them. He was ordered to have no contact, and under federal law Hodgdon should have been forced to relinquish all of his firearms because of his convictions.

In many ways, the system was on to Jason Hodgdon, yet, ultimately, it failed to prevent the murder-suicide of Hodgdon, in his early 20s, and his infant daughter, whom he killed with a 12-gauge shotgun last Feb. 12. The infant’s mother, Jackie Warner, fled before he could reload and fire again but her loss remains impossible to calculate.

This unfortunately too common scenario is contained in a pointed memorandum, an anatomy of a needless murder, penned by Chief Justice Edwin Kelly of New Hampshire’s district court system.

Kelly and other concerned justice and law enforcement officials are joining with government agencies and women’s advocates in a national movement toward what are called “fatality reviews” of slain abused women and their children. The trend for doing such indepth looks at domestic violence deaths is catching on, spreading from a few progressive cities and towns toward becoming the national norm.

Kelly, a member of New Hampshire’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee, was one of 100 members of similar panels, from Las Vegas, Denver, Montgomery, Ala., and other cities, who met last week in Nashua, N.H., for training in how best to do their work to save lives.

(The author of this article, a working journalist, attended in order to speak about her own experience as a member of Maine’s Domestic Homicide Review Panel, and to write about the meeting and the issues for Women’s Enews.)

So Far, Fatality Reviews Tend to Focus on Child Abuse Deaths

Detailed reviews of how systems failed are more familiar in the highly publicized cases of the deaths of neglected and battered children who are said to have fallen through the cracks of an overwhelmed system, but the same determination is inspiring efforts to ensure that battered women and their babies do not die in vain.

According to FBI statistics, 11 percent of all murders in 1998 (1,830) were the result of intimate partner violence, compared with about 3,000 such homicides in 1976. In 72 percent of the intimate partner homicides, the victim was female (1,320), compared with 50 percent in 1976.

Kelly was working on a review of New Hampshire’s district court system, but his perspective on what went wrong is part of a larger national effort to stop violence against women. The idea is to scrutinize the work of departments and agencies that should be working together: law enforcement, the criminal justice and prison systems, family courts, the civil court system which issues protection orders, social services for abused women and children, and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, among others.

All too often, problems concern the lack of information-sharing, and cooperation between and among interested parties. A judge issuing a civil protection order to an abused woman often may not have access to the criminal record of her abuser. Lack of oversight and lack of follow-up to dangerous situations also pose the danger of continuing violence.

Officials like Kelly, along with women’s advocates at all levels, are building new networks of oversight to review the actions and inactions of public agencies when someone has died, and to make recommendations that could save a life in the future. Sometimes, everything works the way it is supposed to, but still women and their children die.

In Domestic Abuse, There Are Always Indicators, Red Flags

In a fatality review, representatives come together from law enforcement, criminal, civil and family courts, social service agencies and other parties that have had contact with the case. They discuss their actions, or sometimes lack of response, in the larger context of the domestic situation.

Was a demonstrably dangerous person granted bail when he could have been detained? Did an order of protection take into consideration the relevant, violent behavior of the abuser? Were relevant criminal records made available? Were guns confiscated from an abuser with domestic violence convictions? Were guns sold to someone with domestic violence convictions? These are among the questions that are likely to be asked.

Members of review committees recognize where problems occurred, perhaps because of a lack of shared information, perhaps because law enforcement didn’t take a complaint seriously, perhaps because the law itself needs reform.

“We do believe there are indicators and red flags,” said Mindy Abel, director of a fatality review board in Denver for a legal assistance program for abused women. “These are preventable deaths.”

Nancy M. Saitta, a district court judge in Las Vegas, has used her position to advocate for systemic reforms. Nevada has active review boards, but inspiring widespread enthusiasm to protect abused women and children is a challenge, she says.

“I’m all for systemic review and change, because I do not believe that as a criminal justice system we are responding effectively,” Saitta said. “We’re not responding to our community responsibility.”

More Than a Cautionary Tale: An Object Lesson in What Not to Do

The widely reported story in local media of Jason Hodgdon and Jackie Warner, whom Hodgdon had threatened to kill on previous occasions, argues in favor of fatality review teams. Judge Kelly’s public review of the district courts illustrated how the many branches of justice, law enforcement and victim advocacy must be vigilant and work in harmony if they are to protect battered women and their children from violent partners and ex-partners.

Hodgdon was free on bail, awaiting a Feb. 16 hearing on a charge of criminal threatening against Jackie Warner. He broke into Warner’s apartment in the early morning hours of Feb. 12. After struggling with Warner, he killed their baby with a 12-gauge shotgun. Warner was able to flee the apartment before Hodgdon had time to reload his gun. Later that morning, Hodgdon shot himself to death as law enforcement officers approached his vehicle.

Judge Kelly found that local courts had failed Warner and her daughter on many counts:

  • At the time of the infant’s murder, the terms of Hodgdon’s bail on his previous arrest were not as stringent as they should have been because bail commissioners had not been provided with a checklist of how best to protect a woman from her batterer. Kelly has since ordered distribution and discussion of that list.
  • Warner was never referred to a crisis center that could have helped her plan for her safety, a practice that should have been standard procedure.
  • No attempt had been made to invoke New Hampshire’s law providing for preventive detention for potentially violent defendants, like Hodgdon.
  • No attempt had been made to force Hodgdon to relinquish his weapons. However, Hodgdon had stolen his stepfather’s shotgun to commit the murder, so confiscation might not have mattered.
  • Criminal court judges were not aware of the history of protection orders against Hodgdon because the civil and criminal courts do not have an effective and routine way of communicating. This lack of communication between and among courts is a national problem, and remedies remain elusive.

Coveted Souvenirs: Dry Memoranda and Life-Saving Protocols

The most sought-after souvenirs of this conference were Kelly’s memorandum on murder, written in dense legalistic style, and a protocol developed by New Hampshire Atty. Gen. Philip McLaughlin and county prosecutors for keeping firearms away from certain batterers. It focused on batterers who have tried to buy a gun in violation of the federal Brady law, which prohibits some convicted batterers from buying firearms.

Gathering that kind of arid, life-saving information was precisely the goal of many in attendance, including some police from departments that have not yet joined the trend toward special units dedicated to investigating domestic violence crimes and diligently following up with batterers.

Some police departments with strong domestic violence programs, but want to extend their interagency cooperation with prosecutors, child protective workers, judges, advocates and other service agencies to carry out fatality reviews.

Montgomery, Ala., Police Lt. Steve Searcy trains officers throughout the state in how to respond to domestic abuse cases and to move beyond the time-honored methods of arrest and prosecution that so often fail to provide safety to battered women.

“My hope is to begin a fatality review in Montgomery County, and then to set it up as kind of a model in the state,” Searcy said. “Now I think I have the nuts and bolts of how to put all the pieces together.”

Marie Tessier is a free-lance writer and adjunct professor of journalism in Maine.

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