The lists arrive with comforting predictability this time of year: the best of this, the worst of that, the funniest, the saddest, the ones we either will remember forever or hope to forget. I enjoy the lists, especially at a time when we have a few days free to contemplate them.
There is one list I dread, however, the one that this year begins: Krista Marie Fisherman, 35, Bemidji, Feb. 13, 2015, stabbing, romantic partner.
It is the annual list of people killed because of domestic violence, collected by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MCBW). The preliminary count for 2015, gleaned from public records and news reports, stands at 34. It does not count spouses and romantic partners who nearly escaped death, or those whose causes are still undetermined. The annual number of deaths from domestic assaults ranges from 20 to 40, so sadly 26 homicides a year is about average.
What always surprises me is how few of the names I recognize, those who made the news because their case was unusual or spectacular in some way. The others mostly died quietly, especially in rural areas where a slaying might have been captured in a three-paragraph story in the local paper, or sometimes just in an obituary, with no cause of death given.
Like this one from southeastern Minnesota: Carol Lee Alexander-Pickart, 76, was killed in apparent murder-suicide. The man who killed her, and then himself, was her husband, Jerome Ralph Pickart, 84.
According to police, Pickart called law enforcement officials to report the homicide, informing them that he had just killed [his] wife. Police later recovered a .38 caliber pistol from the scene.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” a law enforcement officer told a local newspaper.
It’s a grim tally, but one that Liz Richards, executive director of the MCBW, says is essential so that the victims and the issue are not forgotten.
Richards said the list changes slightly from year to year, but there are some consistencies. First, the victims are women, by a large percentage. This year, just two victims were men who were killed by a female partner. About 50 percent of the homicides are done with firearms.
Domestic violence knows no age, economic or geographic boundaries. This year’s victims ranged from 19 to 76, and their homes were as frequently in rural Minnesota and the suburbs as in the inner cities, from Aurora in the north to Winona in the south.
They were victims such as Lanaea Ann Harrison, who was found inside a duck decoy bag. Her boyfriend had also killed himself. Or Linda Kay Boehme, who was found dead after her boyfriend allegedly hit her on the head. Then there was Fisherman, whose American Indian name means “Thunder bird woman.” According to her obituary, she “loved to listen to music and spend time with her family.”
One thing that jumped out at domestic abuse professionals is that more of the couples had more contact with the criminal justice system than in the past. The coalition’s Richards said she’s not sure if that’s because more women are coming forward earlier or that fewer incidents are happening in isolation than before. It also raises questions of whether something could have been done during previous contacts with the law.
“That’s something we are going to look at more closely,” Richards said.
The list includes victims besides the immediate intimate partners, such as children, or in one case, an officer who was killed by the abuser. Aitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Sandberg was shot while he was monitoring a suspect at a St. Cloud hospital.
A legislative victory
The coalition did gain some ground in the Legislature in 2015. Legislators changed a law to allow authorities to consider a “necessity defense” in driver’s license revocation cases. The change stemmed from a case in which a woman in a rural area fled an abusive spouse in a car, only to be stopped for drunken driving. The change allows lawmakers to decide whether the victim’s need to flee was a factor in determining whether to revoke his or her license. It’s a small change, but the coalition found that “in rural areas especially, it does come up.”
Richards says further research needs to be done in cases in which economic and social needs intersect with a violent relationship, like the woman who doesn’t leave an abusive husband because “her only other option is the streets.”
Meanwhile, three women are killed by current or former partners in this country every day. Richards said that won’t change without more diligence in law enforcement, support for victims, and involvement by friends and neighbors who witness the signs of domestic abuse.
Each time a domestic homicide happens in Minnesota, the coalition raises the “Live Free Without Violence” flag as part of a public awareness campaign. Last week it was raised again in honor of two women in the state believed to have been killed by their partners.