The Investigators: Legislators look to strengthen laws for domestic abuse victims

The Investigators: Legislators look to strengthen laws for domestic abuse victims

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Legislators said a 9News Investigation has shed light on a major problem Louisiana faces: domestic violence deaths.

Now, state leaders are looking to strengthen a soft spot in a law meant to protect victims.

Kimberley Nicole Perkins' body was found in a pile of debris under a bridge in St. Landry Parish on March 21, 2016. Investigators arrested her husband Sam Clark Jr. for allegedly shooting his wife twice in the head, dumping her body in a bayou and killing her. Officials said he allegedly confessed to the killing.

Clark's arrest report detailed his wife saying she did not love him anymore and was moving out.

Kathryn Rossi remembers what she said Kim told her about Clark.

"He told her he would see the light drain out of her before he ever saw her with anybody else. 'If I can't have you, nobody can,' and he laughed like it was a joke," said Rossi.

Prior to that incident, when the couple lived in Livonia, Clark was arrested in October 2015 for allegedly choking his wife and putting a gun up to her head when couple lived in Livonia in Pointe Coupee Parish.

A week later, Judge James Best held what's known as a "Gwen's Law" hearing, but Kim changed her story during that hearing contradicting what she told responding officers. Many say that is because her husband was right there in front of her as she testified.

With her story changing, Judge Best set bond at just $5,000.

"The judge needs to take responsibility for making an error in judgment because despite Gwen's Law, the judge always has the discretion to set a bond or not give a bond," said Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans.

Morrell helped turned the Gwen's Law into reality in 2014, saying a judge should look more into the defendant's past and whether he or she poses a threat to the victim as part of the judge's decision process. Its aim is to protect victims of domestic abuse and keep the defendant in jail.

However, Morrell and Rep. Helena Moreno, who also helped with the Gwen's Law, both said many judges in the state pushed back.

Moreno, R-New Orleans, said in 2015 they went back and "Gwen's Law became permissive so it's not, these hearings are not mandatory anymore." That means judges are no longer required to hold a Gwen's Law hearing at all.

The senator said in this case, despite the victim changing her story, Judge Best should have done his homework before setting a $5,000 bond.

"Looking at the evidence that was presented before the judge, you saw from the chief of police regarding two detectives showing that this woman was strangled, she was threatened with a gun. To give someone a $5,000 bond, that is unconscionable. That shows utter disgust and utter disregard for domestic violence," Morrell said.

Morrell has introduced Senate Bill 320 in session this year asking to keep the victim and defendant at a distance in the courtroom.

As for trying to completely get the defendant out of the courtroom while the victim testifies, Moreno said "that shouldn't have even happened to begin with. The judge should have made that call."

"The challenge you have is this you can't legislate common sense," Morrell said. "If you're wrong and you err on the wrong side, as this judge did, someone could get killed."

Moreno said in her parish, Orleans, officers perform a risk assessment at domestic violence callouts asking specific questions such as if the victim fears his or her life. That way if the victim changes their story, the judge has the report from the officer.

"The judge can go back and look at this risk assessment that was done at the crime scene and say, 'Wait a minute. Actually, I think there is a problem because you said things have never been so bad. I'm worried for my life. He is going to kill me next time he sees me,' and the judge can more accordingly deal with the situation," Moreno said.

Moreno said she will likely introduce a bill next year for a statewide risk assessment questionnaire.

"We are researching the potential of using such a tool like that for domestic violence cases and we will discuss it with the Chief and Sheriff but it does take additional time away from the officer but if it has the potential to save lives, it would be worth it to just save one life," said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore.

Attempts to reach Judge Best have been unsuccessful.

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