Monica Butler Johnson’s estranged husband choked her until she lost her voice. He later stalked her outside a birthday party and at Wal-Mart, lingered by her home’s windows and hid in her attic, she wrote, asking a court to bar David Johnson from coming within 100 yards of her Geismar property.
She received a temporary protective order in July, but a month later, David Johnson came to that house and beat Monica Butler Johnson to death with a bat, authorities say.
In April, Denham Springs police officers arrested Kent Scott after his on-again, off-again girlfriend Gwendolyn Ann Thomas accused him of punching her in the face. The DA’s Office didn’t move forward with the case, but a yearlong protective order was issued. That didn’t stop Scott from showing up Tuesday at Thomas’ house, where police say he stabbed her to death in the front yard.
“It’s just a piece of paper,” Thomas’ relatives said later about paperwork that was supposed to prohibit Scott from contacting the woman he’s been accused of repeatedly attacking over 15 years.
While the intention behind protective orders — court orders for one person to stay away from another — is often to stop domestic abuse before it happens, experts say that in some cases, it does the opposite. Experts and officials say these orders work for the majority of victims, but in some situations, obtaining an order actually might incite violence. In those incredibly volatile situations, victims cannot just rely on law enforcement to respond to an order violation and prevent what could end in murder. Instead, victims are urged to relocate.
“They are very effective at enhancing safety, but they do increase risk,” Lynn Medley-Long, executive director of the Iris Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge, said of protective orders.
There were more than 16,000 active protective orders in Louisiana in 2015, according to the Louisiana Protective Order Registry, including 1,724 in East Baton Rouge, second only to Orleans Parish, with 2,695.
Medley-Long estimated about 80 percent of the 5,000 people Iris serves every year either have a protective order or are seeking one.
Victims can immediately file for a temporary restraining order, which can be issued the same day. Later, a judge will determine whether to extend the temporary order, end it or change it to a longer-standing protective order, which generally lasts about 18 months.
Over 15 years, Scott was arrested at least three times in attacks on Thomas, including an earlier knife assault in 1999. But in each of those cases, the assault charges didn’t stick.
In the most recent attack before Thomas’ death, Scott was arrested April 5 after she said he punched her in the face and head and pushed her through a door. Prosecutors rejected the case after reviewing the police report, which said Thomas was intoxicated at the time, refused medical treatment and wouldn’t submit a voluntary statement against Scott, the Livingston Parish District Attorney’s Office said. But Thomas did receive a protective order as a result of Scott’s arrest.
David Johnson had been arrested on Dec. 31, 2014, on a count of domestic abuse with strangulation, although his wife later asked for the charges to be dropped, saying she felt it was a one-time attack and the result of a medical condition. But after repeated stalking, she said she changed her mind.
At the time of her death, Monica Butler Johnson, 45 and an admissions administrator at Remington College in Baton Rouge, was set to return to court in just a couple weeks to make her request for a protective order permanent. She was found dead Aug. 9 in her backyard, her husband later apprehended and accused of beating her to death.
Taking worst-case scenarios like these into account, Tania Tetlow, the former director at Tulane Law School’s Domestic Violence Clinic, said she would sit down with clients to consider how they thought their abuser would respond to being served by the court before deciding on whether to ask for a protective order. She didn’t always push her clients to request one.
“For some abusers, the minute they’re ordered, they go buy a gun,” Tetlow said.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said evidence shows victims are at greater risk immediately before and after a hearing.
Melanie Fields, assistant district attorney and a special prosecutor for domestic violence cases, said protective orders are most effective with someone “who has a healthy respect for the court or the law.” That typically turns out to be the majority of abusers, she said.
Previous time behind bars also can be an indicator of whether the order will persuade the perpetrator, Fields said.
“They’re more effective for someone who has spent some time in jail,” Fields said from her experience.
The U.S. Department of Justice released statistics in 2009 from a study that year of more than 750 women who obtained protective orders. Those showed that 60 percent of the women experienced at least one violation during the first year the order was in effect.
On the other hand, the same study found that threats to harm a victim and severe abuse decreased almost 50 percent in cases where an order was issued. Moderate abuse decreased 61 percent, the study found.
One reason Tetlow said protective orders are violated is that some offenders do not think they’ll be arrested, even though state law requires law enforcement to use “every reasonable means, including but not limited to immediate arrest of the violator” to enforce the orders.
“States all over the country have mandatory arrest statures for the enforcement of protective order precisely because police were refusing to enforce them,” Tetlow said. “Some police immediately check in with the victim and enforce the law religiously, but I don’t think that’s in very many places.”
The Baton Rouge Police Department made 104 arrests on violations of protective orders between Jan. 1, 2014, and Sept. 15, 2015, according to its records. The department could not provide how many overall reports of violations it responded to.
“If we have probable cause, we make the arrest,” said Baton Rouge police Lt. Jonny Dunnam.
Dunnam said the Baton Rouge Police Department has one lieutenant devoted to tracking domestic violence cases through the court system, working to ensure the cases are adjudicated swiftly. Lt. Shona Stokes, the victim assistance coordinator, said she provides victims with guidance while their cases wind through the court system.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office made arrests on more than 70 percent of 164 violation reports it responded to from Jan. 1, 2014, to Sept. 1, 2015. The Sheriff’s Office made 120 arrests, according to statistics its office provided.
Sgt. Patti Freeman, one of two deputies assigned to domestic abuse cases at the Sheriff’s Office, said deputies do not let the perpetrator go if they have probable cause.
“In all 23 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen that happen one time, and that was a case where the victim invited the suspect back to their home,” Freeman said.
Moore, the East Baton Rouge DA, said his office offers relocation assistance whenever victims feel afraid for their lives. He said his staff temporarily relocates a handful of victims going through proceedings per month, often placing them in hotels.
Medley-Long said Iris offers similar assistance, working with victims to move to safe houses, to move more permanently and to abide by individual safety plans, in addition to legal assistance in petitioning for a protective order.
While temporary relocation is one option, it isn’t always enough, and people should be open to relocating permanently, Fields said. As many domestic abuse battery offenses are prosecuted as misdemeanors — which means they have maximum prison sentences of six months — sometimes a move is necessary, she said.
“Victims who are of wealthier means are the most difficult because they don’t want to leave their house and their schools and their jobs,” Fields said. “That’s what makes us not sleep well at night.”
Medley-Long said educating the public is key: knowing the signs of domestic abuse, how to offer resources to the abused and how to report a violation.
She said people need to understand that a protective order is only part of the answer.
The community needs to get involved to help those who are being abused, Medley-Long said.
“We have to wrap support around them. There has to be a safety net.”
Follow Danielle Maddox on Twitter, @Dani_Maddox4.