State sees fewest domestic violence deaths in 20 years

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 30, 2013 - 5:28 PM

But, "18 deaths is an outrage," say advocates, who point to plenty of work remaining to be done.

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Emmitt Lozano, 15, took a picture of his sister’s memorial shirt during the Domestic Violence Homicide Memorial event on Tuesday at the Kelly Inn in St. Paul. Lozano’s sister Vinessa was killed by a co-worker on Jan. 13, 2012, after she turned away his advances.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Vinessa Lozano was first, an 18-year-old from Montevideo, Minn., who had just finished her shift at the local Pizza Ranch on Jan. 13, 2012, when police say an obsessed co-worker stabbed her more than 30 times with a hunting knife.

Then it happened at least 17 more times in Minnesota last year: Someone was killed as a result of domestic violence.

The year's final victim, Rosemary Oberg-Johnson, 55, of Grand Rapids, was shot to death Dec. 28 while intervening in an abusive relationship.

The 18 known victims of domestic violence in Minnesota last year -- 14 women and one man were killed by their spouse or partner; three family members or friends also died in domestic assaults -- were memorialized Tuesday at a tribute organized by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

On two carousel-type clotheslines, 18 colorfully decorated T-shirts honoring each victim hung as their names were read aloud.

The coalition also released its annual Femicide Report, documenting that the number of deaths had dropped from 34 in 2011.

While the 2012 deaths were the lowest in 20 years, "just one person being killed in the context of domestic violence is one person too many," said Rebekah Moses, program manager for the coalition, which serves more than 80 organizations statewide.

"These deaths stand as a challenge for us to do better," said Liz Richards, executive director of the coalition. "One death is a tragedy; 18 deaths is an outrage."

The memorial was personally meaningful to state Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, whose sister was nearly killed when her ex-husband set their house ablaze. In pain-filled journal entries, her sister documented his alcohol-fueled rages.

"Is he drinking beer? If he's drinking beer, just let him do what he wants," one read. "If he's drinking whiskey, just keep him away from my face. Just keep him away from my face."

The effects of domestic violence permeate society, she said.

"We are all affected, which makes domestic violence a bipartisan issue," she said. "Ending domestic violence is something we can all work together to achieve. No one deserves to live a life of fear."

Moses, noting the slaying and dismemberment of 32-year-old Manya J. Johnson of St. Paul in an alleged domestic violence incident already this year, said there's no way to gauge whether the lower numbers signal a trend since they vary so much and reflect the unique tragic circumstances of each case.

In 2011, 34 people statewide lost their lives to domestic violence.

Between 1992 and 2011, the death toll has ranged from a low of 22 in 1996 to a high of 52 in 1993.

In all years, the overwhelming majority of victims have been women.

Half the deaths involved firearms, and many happened when the wife or girlfriend was about to leave -- a key crisis point in domestic violence cases.

The victims left behind 11 minor children and eight adult children, and the rate of cases involving murder-suicide was twice the national average, Richards said.

Better intervention strategies are helping both victims and offenders in domestic violence situations, Moses said, but advocacy groups like hers want to make sure those efforts remain a policy priority.

"Minnesota really can't afford to compromise on public safety," she said.

Part of that strategy includes use of a "lethality assessment protocol," which gives police and prosecutors an important tool for precisely gauging the threat level a domestic violence victim is facing, allowing authorities to figure out the proper intervention and response.

"Law enforcement is taking on a much more crisis-intervention role than maybe 20 years ago," said state Rep. Dan Schoen, a DFLer who uses the protocol in his work as a Cottage Grove police officer. Just last Friday, he tangled with a drunken man who had an outstanding warrant for a domestic abuse charge.

The protocol is a sheet of questions, developed through research, that officers can ask a victim, including key indicators such as a firearm being in the house or if the perpetrator is suicidal.

"We'll tell the victim 'Hey, I need to tell you, he's a lot more likely to kill you than not,'" he said. "And it's not always about the black and the white, it's what's in the gray, and how we can help people."

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson

  • action day The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women March 12 has been declared "Action Day to End Violence Against Women," which will include a rally at 1 p.m. in the Capitol rotunda.
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