Project aims to find, close gaps in protections for domestic violence victims

Published: Jan. 24, 2020 at 6:10 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) – There were 239 domestic homicides in Alabama from 2010 to 2017. A gun was used in 64-percent of those killings, according to data from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).

Nationwide, “mere access to firearms increases the likelihood of intimate-partner homicide by 8 times,” said Nancy Hart, Senior Program Attorney, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Hart continued, “There are laws that prohibit domestic violence offenders from having firearms in both civil orders, when they have a civil protection order against them or if they’ve been convicted of a domestic violence offense.”

These laws exist in Alabama but gaps in enforcement and communication create dangerous, and in some cases, deadly consequences.

“You want me to end this now?!”

Delilah “Susie” McKee, 53, was found shot to death in her home in Blount County days after her estranged husband, Ricky McKee, was arrested and accused of threatening her with a gun.

The McKees were going through a divorce and had mutual restraining orders. As their case progressed, Mrs. McKee became increasingly worried for her safety, according to court records.

In a filing on November 19 in response to Mr. McKee’s motion to issue a pistol permit, Mrs. McKee’s attorney wrote, “the Defendant fears for her health and safety as a result of Plaintiff’s behavior.” Her attorney argued Mr. McKee violated their mutual restraining order by, “contacting her by telephone, by stalking her, by photographing her.”

The next day, Blount County Sheriff’s Deputies were called to the McKee’s house and reported finding Mr. McKee in the house with “multiple” rounds of ammunition on him and a shotgun in his truck.

According to an arrest report, Mrs. McKee told officers Mr. McKee came in their home with a shotgun and a handgun and hit her on the hand with the shotgun and then beat it on the floor, threatening her. “Victim states that the offender also threatened to shoot her and made a statement saying, ‘You want me to end this now?!’”

Mr. McKee was arrested and charged with domestic violence third degree, menacing.

When the judge learned of Mr. McKee’s arrest, he denied his pistol permit request and ordered him in contempt for failure to abide by the court’s order. A writ of arrest was issued for McKee and he was ordered to be held without bond.

That order did not make it to the Blount County Sheriff’s Office in time and McKee was released.

The McKees were found dead in their home, one day before a judge was set to consider additional restrictions on an order of protection.

The communication failure was found to be unintentional after an investigation by the District Attorney’s office, but it’s led to changes, including notifying domestic violence victims when their offender is released from jail on bond.

Finding a solution

“When we begin to hear things over and over again from people who have experienced domestic violence, we take notice,” said Allison Dearing, Executive Director, One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center. “We began asking questions about court orders and existing laws and whether or not they were actually being enforced.”

Dearing found, “where there were gaps and loopholes that were actually allowing people who were court ordered not to have access to firearms, they were actually still having access to guns.”


Who is responsible?

How can this be fixed?

Dearing’s discovery and resulting questions led her to the Firearms Technical Assistance Project. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is leading the project, which selected six cities to participate, including Birmingham.

We are not talking about changing laws, we are talking about implementing existing law,” said Hart.

She continued, “At the end of this, we are hoping there might be lessons learned from each of the six communities that we will be able to share with other communities that are interested in doing this work, and we want to be able to say, whether you have strong laws or weak laws, there are steps you can take in your community to improve the enforcement of these restrictions.”

Part of the project is identifying where gaps exist in the enforcement of laws, and in communication between the court, law enforcement and victim advocacy groups.

The systems that are in place have to work and the laws that are in place have to be enforced,” said Dearing.

Another component is identifying cases where federal law can be applied.

A lot of cases are being missed out there so I think one thing that would be very important is how can we improve educating our federal and state law enforcement partners and also finding a way to bring those cases to us and make that a lot more efficient,” said Lloyd Peeples, First Assistant United States Attorney.

He added, “A lot of what this program is trying to do, it’s trying to create awareness that there are things that can be done federally on these firearm prosecutions.”

The project is expected to take two years with the ultimate goal of finding ways to best protect victims of domestic violence. Once the areas of need are identified, training and technical assistance will be provided to the communities involved.

“We want to be able to say, whether you have strong laws or weak laws, there are steps you can take in your community to improve the enforcement of these restrictions,” said Hart.

Dearing added, “I hope at the end of two years, the relationships that are in place now are even stronger. I hope that questions we have around enforcement and existing laws are solidified in our minds so that we can effectively communicate with survivors so there is not a question if an order is going to be enforced or the manner in which it will be enforced, but we can say with assurance there are systems in place where people communicate well and that we feel as certain as possible that those systems are working to support survivors.”

In addition to Birmingham, Brooklyn, NY; Columbus, OH; Muscogee Creek Nation in OK; Spokane, WA and the State of Vermont are taking part in the project.

A survivor’s perspective

Tina Thornton understands the betrayal of a spouse and a system, both meant to protect.

“It's disarming, emotionally and mentally, it's very disarming, that the person who vowed to protect you also wants to take your life,” said Thornton.

She added, “You're in a crisis state of just trying to survive.”

Thornton’s then-husband brutally beat her, tossing her around “like a rag doll,” she recalled.

“But I was able to survive and walk away from, determined to move forward and empower others.”

Part of Thornton’s healing is helping others who are going through similar situations. Even years after her abuse, she said some of the problems she faced then still exist today.

“There were spaces and time where I was needing more than I was getting,” said Thornton.

Thornton said she welcomes the Firearms Technical Assistance Project and is hopeful it will result in better enforcement of laws and ultimately, better protections for victims of domestic violence.

“Any opportunity that reinforces and closes out those gaps that enables a victim or survivor to be impacted by such a horrible experience… so any experience to reinforce safety, to extend a life, is rewarding, it’s rewarding for anyone,” said Thornton.

If you are a victim of domestic violence and need assistance, please contact:

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224.

One Place Birmingham: 205-453-7261

YWCA 24-hour Crisis Line: 205-322-4878

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