When her front tooth clattered across the kitchen floor, Arteisha Love decided she had had enough.
The punch to the mouth from her drunken boyfriend, Gregory Stewart, was the culmination of months of abuse that brought the police to her West St. Paul and Blaine homes seven times in eight months. Nearly every time, Stewart, 29, was sent to a detox facility and released without jail time.
That June night in 2015, she snapped, plunging a nearby kitchen knife into Stewart’s torso. Panicking, she ordered her 11-year-old daughter to mop up the mess. She called her brother and mother. Then she called police.
Love, 31, was sentenced to more than six years in prison earlier this month after pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter. Her case has brought a renewed debate among advocates and lawyers who say the criminal justice system failed to help a domestic assault victim before she, too, resorted to violence.
“The question is the same: Where did the system fail those people, if at all?” said Deirdre Keys, advocate and program manager for the Minneapolis-based Battered Women’s Legal Advocacy Project. “Were there any interventions that could have ended this, whether it’s a woman who dies at the hands of an abuser or it’s an abuser who dies at the hands of a victim of domestic violence? There has to be more, but I don’t know what that is.”
As of Jan. 1, there are at least 25 women in Minnesota serving prison sentences for manslaughter or murder for the killing of an intimate partner (this does not account for those who may have been sentenced for a lesser crime), according to the state’s Department of Corrections. According to a study by the New York State Department of Corrections, 67 percent of women sent to prison in 2005 who killed someone close to them were abused by the victim of their crime, and cases like Love’s have cycled through the Minnesota courts for decades.
A pardon denied
Just last year, Charolette Washington Benjamin asked the state’s Board of Pardons to exonerate her of a 1987 manslaughter conviction in Ramsey County because it came after her boyfriend had threatened to kill her. Benjamin, who was 26 at the time, spent a year in jail and served 15 years’ probation. She told police at the time that her boyfriend knocked out several of her teeth and broke her jaw, and that she was only protecting herself after they struggled for the knife. The Board denied the pardon.
Two weeks ago, an Eden Prairie domestic abuse victim unable to defend herself was killed.
Lyuba Savenok, 23, a mother of two who was 26 weeks pregnant, was stabbed to death by her husband Yevgeniy Savenok, 30, on May 14 in front of her 14-year-old sister. Investigators traced a long and “turbulent domestic history” between the two, charges said. Lyuba Savenok had contacted police several times regarding “incidents of domestic assault” at the hands of her husband. An order for protection was still valid at the time of her death.
At Love’s sentencing, public defender Catherine Trevino told Anoka County District Judge John Dehen that her client’s relationship with Stewart was “toxic” and abusive.
“He punched her and she reacted,” Trevino said. “She is a battered woman. This is all she knew.”
Prosecutors believe she wasn’t in immediate danger when she called her family before alerting authorities.
“It appears she was in a bad situation,” said Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo. “But she was the aggressor and used a knife to kill him. There is no doubt she was struck, but she had ample time to retreat.”
‘He didn’t stop’
Court records detail a pattern between Love and Stewart: He would come home drunk, he’d become argumentative and violent, police would show up and send him to a detox facility without incident.
This story played out at least five times between October 2014 and June 2015 at her apartments in West St. Paul and Blaine. In one incident, he was handcuffed, then released and told to leave, according to court documents.
But he would always return, punching holes in the bathroom wall and breaking down doors as she cowered in fear. The violent pattern for Love, who is black, was not uncommon. While black women are 8 percent of the country’s population, they account for 22 percent of intimate partner homicide victims of all genders, and 29 percent of all female victims of domestic violence homicides, according to the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community. Black women are killed by a spouse at twice the rate of white women.
“He didn’t stop,” Keys said. “That’s the bottom line in this whole story. My strong inclination is he was probably going to kill her.”
“He would drink, and would be mean,” Trevino said. “It makes you wonder what would have happened if he had been charged.”
Palumbo wouldn’t speculate whether the outcome would have been different had police stepped in sooner.
“There is no guarantee,” Palumbo said. “Intervening once or twice, maybe it makes a difference.”
The last time
The last time police were called, Stewart was dead.
Initially, Love denied hurting him and told authorities their relationship was “good.” But Love later said she “didn’t mean to do it” and their relationship was abusive, according to the first-degree manslaughter charges filed against her.
“That’s the cycle of domestic violence,” Trevino said. “There would be a period of calm, then it’d happen again.”
At her sentencing, Love stood silent, staring forward as several members of Stewart’s family sobbed and took turns reading victim impact statements.
“I can’t put it together why this person would take his life,” Teba, Stewart’s younger sister, told Dehen, the judge.
Dehen turned to Love and asked whether she had anything to say. Love simply shook her head and said “No.”