New laws, resources available for those who lost loved ones to domestic violence
On Saturday, Sept. 24, a woman was found shot dead allegedly by a man she had been in a domestic relationship with for two years. On Sept. 12, a 27-year-old man was found shot outside an apartment building in Salt Lake City in a “domestic situation” after an argument with his girlfriend who is now in custody.
Over a month ago, Gabby Petito’s family members announced a whopping $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Moab Police Department after she was killed by her boyfriend in 2021.
Two domestic violence-related deaths within a two-week period in Salt Lake City, are a stark reminder of the high domestic violence murder rate in Utah.
Did you know that Utah has one of the highest (if not THE highest) domestic violence murder rates in the country? Over 42% of all homicides in Utah are domestic violence related.
— Utah Homicide Survivors (@utahsurvivors) July 24, 2018
The Utah Intimate Partner and Domestic Violence Fatalities Report of 2020 shares the following statistics:
- 22.7% of homicide victims in Utah were killed by a partner or in a domestic violence-related incident
- 85.9% of partner or violence-related homicide victims were female
- 53.9% of victims had a history of intimate partner violence that was reported to authorities by friends, family members, neighbors, etc.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month so KSL spoke to Brandon Merrill, Executive Director and Founder of Utah Homicide Survivors, about the resources and processes after a domestic violence homicide.
While family members of victims may seem to have good reason to file a lawsuit, not many of them ever do. A non-profit, Utah Homicide Survivors, with the help of some new laws that were passed, hopes to change that.
Utah Homicide Survivors, which celebrated its third anniversary in July, works with families of victims for healing and justice.
“We have a few primary goals: the first is to bring hope justice and healing to the families of murder victims. Our second goal, which is incorporated into that justice aspect, is making sure that killers do not profit from murder and that they are held accountable for their crimes financially,” Merrill said. “We provide group therapy, individual therapy is important, but having a community understand what you’re going through is extremely important.”
Today marks the first day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
I am committed to finding solutions and resources for my cousin Mandy – and for every other Utahn who has endured the nightmare of domestic violence. pic.twitter.com/hJoNaRKL7V
— Lt. Gov. Deidre M. Henderson (@LGHendersonUtah) October 1, 2022
The process after a homicide
“Most of our cases are domestic violence related so husband and wife, or boyfriend/ girlfriend or even parent and child or grandparent and grandchild. You know, family situations. A lot of those have a lot of evidence, but not always, Merrill said. “When there’s a lot of evidence the first thing that we do is we always file a probate case.”
The first move after that is to disinherit the killer as an heir of the estate.
“We make sure that the killer can’t inherit from the estate of the deceased. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have some assets that can stay with them and that’s because of how the courts look at what the word ‘profit’ means. The Utah slayer statute says the killer can’t profit from murder. That’s pretty much what all slayer statutes state.”
Often times the court will split the assets that the couple involved owned together in half.
“From there, we would also file a wrongful death lawsuit. That would be paying for the damage that they caused civilly, and also to send a message to society. So we do a general damages for loss of love, companionship, pain and suffering things like that and there’s a second aspect called punitive damages, which means punishing damages which is to send a message to society, ‘hey don’t do this or you’re going to have to pay this amount.'”
Utah has a new slayer statute thanks to the legislative session this last year, which is further explained below.
What prevents lawsuits
“Those kind of lawsuits are a lot easier than cases or where there’s not a lot of evidence or it’s a cold case, or the police did not investigate properly or something messed up. We don’t see a ton of those, but every once and a while they do come in,” Merrill said.
“Or the charge doesn’t go as high as we need to in order to disinherit the killer. So a negligent homicide would not be there for a disinheritance it has to be a homicide with intention or recklessness. Those are pretty hard.”
Sometimes even with enough evidence there are two, major things that prevent victims from moving forward with lawsuits: money and trauma. Those who move forward with large lawsuits are usually those who have the means to do so.
“When you do a civil lawsuit it’s like going through the trial all over again. You have to relive it and especially there’s so much going on right after a homicide has happened you’ll have a criminal case, with a homicide, if you hire us, we’re going to have a probate case, if there are minor children we’re going to have a guardianship and conservatorship cases, termination of parental rights case. Adding a wrongful death on top of that you’ve got six lawsuits or court cases you’ve got to keep track of,” Merrill said.
The other difficulty in moving forward with the lawsuit process is if there’s a government agency to blame. For instance, if surviving family members feel a police department is at fault in the death of a loved one, a lawsuit against them would be pretty difficult.
“Going after government entity is extremely hard because of government immunity. They have that set up and you know it’s part of our system in our judicial system is that governments generally have immunity from things that are negligent. It’s very rare that that [lawsuit] will occur.”
“And that’s because the criminal process is not designed for the victims, it’s designed for the state and the criminal,” Merrill said. “Which that’s a necessary part of it, which we love prosecutors, we try to help out wherever we can, but the reality of it is that the victims didn’t get to choose how they went about certain things. Prosecutors consult with the victims, they update them, they go through all the cases, but ultimately, they don’t choose the direction of the case. By trying to make sure that they have access to civil justice, that’s where they can decide how to bring the case forward.”
What a successful lawsuit looks like
A successful lawsuit for a domestic violence homicide is hard to measure. Even if everything lines up: with having enough evidence and winning the lawsuit, there might not be a payout.
“They need to look at the ability to collect, and so really it’s what assets the wrongdoer might have especially if there’s insurance attached. And if there’s not insurance attached, there’s no guarantee of a payout and some of them will not do that,” Merrill said. “That’s a big reason why we started doing our types of cases is because we wanted to make sure the victims are able to receive justice regardless of whether there’s a potential payout or not.”
However, for family members of a homicide victim, sometimes the payout isn’t the most important part.
“We have cases where we have won multimillion dollar lawsuits but we’re never going to collect anything,” Merrill said. “To the victim’s family though, that doesn’t matter, because really this civil justice process is what’s giving them a voice. It’s what’s telling them that my child or my parents my brother my sister my cousin – their life mattered and their life had value and so they have a judgement that shows what that value is.”
New laws make it easier
The process for a domestic violence lawsuit is difficult, however, three bills passed in Utah have made that process easier.
“It is going to be a lot easier now, than it has been in the past. and that’s because again thanks to a new law passed by our legislature this last legislative session,” Merrill said.
S.B. 246 allows crime victims an additional year after the criminal case is over for the statute of limitations to take place. Previously, to file certain lawsuits, there were certain time restraints.
“Not many people realize this, but within Utah, a wrongful death lawsuit needs to be filed within two years of the death and most criminal cases will take more than two years. It makes it really hard, they don’t want to mess up the case by starting a civil case at the same time…and so a lot of times they’ll wait until after the criminal case.”
Often times, Merrill said, people are referred by their prosecutors to pursue things and by then it will be too late.
“That happened in one of our cases which is what brought about this extra year on our law,” Merrill said. “They were referred out to us at two years and three weeks. The day the killer was convicted was three weeks past that two-year mark and we couldn’t do anything for them unfortunately.”
In addition, H.B. 314 clarifies the ability to disinherit a person who commits a homicide. Among other things, this bill allows families to freeze assets — controlling what the killer would have access to while in prison: including bank accounts.
This new bill puts all of the killer’s assets in a constructive trust so that way they aren’t wasted or transferred from the moment that a killing occurs. Basically, if the killer tries to sell or give away anything it would be considered a wrongful acquisition by those parties.
“A lot of people don’t realize that it’s pretty easy to access or transfer those type of things from jail. And so this new law makes it a lot harder to hide assets or transfer them away or waste them unnecessarily and make sure that the victim’s family, especially surviving children, get that money,” Merrill said.
Merrill said the killer may ask friends to hide some money or put it someplace else, or sign a power of attorney.
“They [the friend] may not even realize what they’re doing,” Merrill said.
H.B. 321 clarifies the terms of restitution meaning people who are convicted of certain crimes can not deny the crime they have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to.
“What that means is the victim in this case can take that guilty conviction and have it applied to a civil matter or civil case,” Merrill said. “This person was found guilty of assaulting, raping, molesting, they take the guilty conviction and apply it to the civil case and now not only does it make it a lot easier, but it’s a lot shorter. Now they only need a hearing or a trial to determine damages.”
Not everyone may want to file a lawsuit, but Merrill said, it’s important to remove barriers to give them that choice.
The Utah Office for Victims of Crime has a webpage crimevictim.utah.gov which allows for people to search the type of help that they need and will give them a list of resources.
You can contact Utah Homicide Survivors at its website, or their phone number 801-500-9077.
If you or someone you know is going through abuse, help is available.
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