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Investigators and officers respond to a homicide on the 800 block of Bourbon street in New Orleans, Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Tactical officers found one man dead and took the other man into custody after police responded to a call a little after 9am about a disturbance.

Advocate Staff photo by SOPHIA GERMER

In both 2015 and 2016, authorities believe at least one person was killed by their same-sex partner in East Baton Rouge Parish.

A domestic incident in March between two men at their Baton Rouge apartment escalated until one of the men was fatally shot, law enforcement said. Neighbors say the men were a couple.

In early April on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, one man was found dead inside his home, and police believe he was killed by his longtime live-in boyfriend.

But same-sex couples are not protected under Louisiana domestic abuse laws, a limitation that state Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, is hoping to correct this legislative session.

"We have a responsibility to protect all residents of abuse regardless of sexual orientation," said Connick, who is sponsoring House Bill 27 to expand domestic violence protections to same-sex partners. "No matter who you are, you're going to be protected from any kind of violence." 

Louisiana's domestic abuse battery and aggravated assault laws bring harsher penalties for offenders than simple abuse or battery counts and give more protections to victims, experts say. After an initial conviction of domestic abuse battery, a second offense will be increased to a felony charge, while a second offense of simple battery remains just a misdemeanor. The difference, domestic abuse advocates say, is having the chance to intervene in an abusive situation or hearing about another homicide.

Under existing law, people in Louisiana who can be considered victims of the domestic abuse battery and aggravated assault must be abused by someone of the opposite sex with whom they have lived with as a spouse, though they do not have to be officially married. They also can be considered partners if they share a child together. Connick's bill strikes the phrase "of the opposite sex" from all definitions.

"Anything we can do to expand protections is wonderful," said Mandy Cowley, associate executive director of Baton Rouge's Iris Domestic Violence Center. "We know violence is happening in same-sex relationships."

Research shows that domestic violence is as much an issue within same-sex relationships as it is heterosexual relationships. Cowley said her staff often works with victims of domestic violence from same-sex relationships, though she said she worries about the barriers this population faces when seeking help.

"There is a fear that you won't be taken seriously or you don't have the same rights under the law," Cowley said. "Hopefully, (this bill) opens some doors for some individuals in those circumstances."

State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, is sponsoring another bill to further domestic violence protections, hoping to expand the law to include "dating partners," who she defines as people in a social relationship of a romantic or intimate nature. Currently, people who are dating but have not lived together or share children are not covered by domestic abuse laws.

"Obviously, not all victims of domestic abuse are being protected," Moreno said. "We have to work on changing that."

While the state's Protection from Dating Violence Act has provided some protections for victims of abuse from the person they are dating, such as receiving treatment services or getting a restraining order since the law was passed more than a decade ago, it failed to create criminal penalties for offenders, Moreno said. House Bill 223 would change that, she said.

By legally classifying dating partner violence as domestic abuse, defendants are subject to harsher penalties that increase with each offense, said Melanie Fields, a special prosecutor of domestic abuse with the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office. 

"Now the difference is that a defendant is subject to a higher penalty, that would be huge," Fields said. She said the longer a victim has to recover from the abuse, the easier it is to stay safe and also recover.

"Domestic violence is about power and control," Fields said. "It's not just a matter that you got hit; it's your whole being, your self esteem, your psyche is broken."

Sixty percent of intimate partner homicide victims in 2016 in Louisiana were not married, according to the Louisiana Coalition for Domestic Violence. And though some of them could have been living together or share children — thus covered under current domestic abuse law — many may not have been, said Mariah Stidham Wineski, the coalition's interim executive director.

"The Legislature has shown broad support for domestic violence survivors, providing safety for victims," Wineski said. "I'm hopeful that they will have the necessary support this time around."

But the bills could see powerful opposition.

Moreno attempted to add dating partners into domestic abuse laws in 2015 but was unsuccessful, primarily because of lobbying from the National Rifle Association. The NRA then argued the term was too broad and also objected to the greater expansion of possible firearm restrictions. Since 2014, convicted domestic abusers are subject to a 10-year prohibition on firearms. The NRA did not return calls and emails to comment on Moreno's 2017 bill. 

The faith-based Louisiana Family Forum, another group with a lot of sway with legislators, is not in support of either Connick or Moreno's domestic abuse bills at face value, said Gene Mills, the group's president. 

"It seems to be a backdoor attempt to redefine both marriage and family," Mills said about the bill that would expand protections to same-sex couples. However, he said he will listen to any evidence about possible proliferation of same-sex partner abuse, which could influence his stance. 

Mills also said adding dating partners into the definition for who is protected by domestic abuse laws seemed to undermine traditional families and thinks there are better ways to prevent violence. 

But Moreno and Connick have faith in their bills' success.

Moreno said she thinks in this session, there is the climate to pass her dating partners addition. After the resignation of former state Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, in February, sparked by him pleading no contest in two separate battery cases, Moreno said she thinks more legislators have seen the loophole in the law.  

Brown pleaded no contest, meaning he does not dispute the accusations could be proven in court, in an incident in which he was accused of punching his girlfriend in the eye. That was a misdemeanor simple battery charge because the woman was his girlfriend.

He later pleaded no contest to a domestic abuse charge arising from an incident involving his wife. However, because the first case was not criminally prosecuted under domestic abuse battery, the second incident against his wife was, under the law, his first instance of domestic abuse and a misdemeanor. 

Connick decided to author his bill to expand domestic violence protections to same-sex couples upon the recommendation from his brother Paul Connick, the Jefferson Parish district attorney. Rep. Connick hopes support from the district attorneys will carry the bill to success. 

The idea behind both bills is supported by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, though the specifics — like the wording of the bills — has not yet been reviewed and officially supported, Executive Director Pete Adams said.

"I think it has a chance," Connick said. "I think the support of the District Attorney's Office is strong. It's just clarifying the law, just making things more clear when it comes to domestic violence." 

South Carolina is the only other state that also explicitly defines domestic abuse as restricted to opposite sex partners. Many other states, including neighboring Texas, do not include dating partners in such laws, although Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama do. 

If these two provisions pass, Cowley said they would be a huge win for victims and survivors of domestic abuse and violence in same-sex and dating relationships. Under domestic abuse laws, there are accommodations for victims to get protective orders and to hold offenders accountable for abuses like threats and stalking, when otherwise it is often difficult, Cowley said. It also helps to keep firearms out of convicted domestic abusers hands and provides an avenue for offenders to reform through a domestic violence class, Wineski said. 

"Our member programs all across the state frequently encounter survivors who don't fall into the legal definition of domestic abuse battery," Wineski said. She said these protections can help victims get support earlier, so they don't wind up dead.

In 2016, Louisiana had the second-highest rate of female victims murdered by men in single victim-offender incidents, according to a report from the Violence Policy Center. The rate of these killings in Louisiana is behind only Alaska.

"These changes are really long overdue to Louisiana law," Wineski said. "We support both of these policies because we support survivor access to safety and offender responsibility. The dating partners and same-sex couples (bills), these are going to close these dangerous loopholes that have been in Louisiana law for years."

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.