ANNISTON, Ala. (AP) – Alabama courts could impose the death penalty for murder, when the victim has a protection-from-abuse order against the defendant, under a law passed earlier this year.
Proponents of the new law, which goes into effect in July, say it will protect people who are in – or who have just escaped from – abusive relationships.
“The law is not a perfect solution, but it will keep a lot of perpetrators from being paroled and back on the streets where they can hurt someone else,” said Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, who sponsored the law in the Senate.
The law is called “Kelley’s Law” for Kelley Rutledge-Johnston, who was murdered by her estranged husband, David, in 2000. Rutledge-Johnston had previously filed a PFA against him. David pleaded guilty in 2001, and will be up for parole in 2015.
Charles Whisenant is the brother-in-law of Rutledge-Johnston. On the day the law was passed, Whisenant was listening to the legislative session at his kitchen table.
“When it came through, I slapped the table so hard I almost gave my wife, Kelley’s sister, a heart attack,” he said. “I haven’t seen her face light up like that in a long time.”
Under the new law, killing someone with a protection from abuse order, or PFA, would be a capital crime, punishable by either death or life in prison.
“If a person with a PFA against him goes after his victim, he had the intent to harm that victim,” said Scofield. “That kind of person doesn’t need to be out on the street.”
For Whisenant and his family, the law was 12 years in the making. The bill won’t keep his sister-in-law’s killer in prison for life, but he said the bill will prevent the same thing from happening to another family.
“If David gets out on parole, we will have to relive the tragedy all over again,” Whisenant said. “I don’t want any other family to ever have to worry about a loved one’s killer getting out on parole.”
According to a 2012 report from the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, 7 percent of the state’s homicides were related to domestic violence.
Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, a long-standing critic of the death penalty, voted against new law.
“We have enough laws in the book to kill people; capital punishment has always been a law that targets the poor,” Sanders said. “If you have a good lawyer you often don’t get capital punishment anyway.”
Sanders the justice system in Alabama needs to focus more on prevention.
“If someone is dangerous enough to need a PFA, we need to have additional steps for protection and safety that need to be available before the crime ever happens,” Sanders said.
Advocates at 2nd Chance, an Anniston-based advocacy group for victims of domestic violence, agreed with Sanders about prevention, but see the law as progressive for Alabama. Susan Shipman, the director of 2nd Chance and the board president of the Alabama Coalition of Domestic Violence, thinks the law will increase accountability.
“It’s going to take a little while for the perpetrator to know that this law exists, and a lot of times the law doesn’t matter to the person anyway,” Shipman said. “However, any time we can strengthen the laws to have added protection for the victim is good.”
Trace Fleming-Smith, the sexual violence program director for 2nd Chance, stressed the importance of combating the issue of domestic violence on both sides.
“These laws are imperative, and Kelley’s Law will hopefully deter future crimes from happening,” Fleming-Smith said. “We can’t always be looking at cases after the fact, though.”
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said the state had come a long way in its response to domestic violence.
“When I first started in law enforcement, we couldn’t arrest on a domestic violence crime,” Amerson said. “Our task now is to educate the public that the law exists.”
Information from: The Anniston Star
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