Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley’s advice that domestic violence victims should arm themselves and be prepared to use their guns sends a potentially dangerous message to women already in precarious situations, advocates said this week.
But Wiley stood by his comments, made in the wake of a beating that left a Geismar woman dead at her home, saying women with partners who have attacked them should get a gun, learn how to use it and shoot their attacker if need be.
“I don’t waiver on that,” Wiley said about his televised remarks after the Sunday night killing of Monica Butler Johnson.
Her estranged husband, David Johnson, is accused of breaking into her home and beating her with a baseball bat. He was booked into Ascension Parish jail Monday morning on counts of first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, aggravated burglary with a weapon and violations of protective orders.
In an interview with WAFB-TV, Wiley said: “Ladies, learn how to safely handle a weapon, learn how to safely store a weapon and when you’re in a situation like this, shoot him in your backyard before he gets in your house. Drop him.”
Domestic violence advocates said those comments send the wrong message, as studies have shown it is actually more dangerous for women living with an abusive spouse to have a gun in the home.
“It’s devastatingly more dangerous to have a gun in the house where there’s been domestic violence,” said Kim Gandy, a former Orleans Parish prosecutor who now heads the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Gandy estimated that a gun “makes it five times more likely that a woman will be murdered.”
Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, agreed, saying that while some women say they feel safer with a gun, in domestic abuse situations it can actually increase risk.
Wiley pushed back against that idea, saying a gun can be a good tool for a woman to defend herself, if she learns how to use it correctly.
“They can drown me and others with statistics, but I know this: If Mrs. Johnson had a gun and had been trained to use it, she could have shot Mr. Johnson dead and still be alive,” Wiley said Thursday.
For Gandy and other advocates, the solution to deaths like Monica Johnson’s is to improve the criminal justice system, so victims feel safe continuing to prosecute abusers. Monica Johnson had initiated a domestic violence complaint about her husband in late December, saying he choked her, but later told law enforcement she didn’t want to pursue the case.
Monica Johnson dropped the domestic abuse count, according to court records, saying she thought it was an isolated event due to what she said was her husband’s medical condition.
“I can understand the victim doesn’t want to testify” out of fear, said Gandy. “She’s terrified, she’s convinced he’s going to kill her.”
Six months after the December incident, Sheriff’s Office deputies were called to Monica Johnson’s home on June 19 after David Johnson had been seen near her home; the couple were then living separately. David Johnson had been seen earlier near a birthday party that Monica Johnson had taken her younger son to and had been following her on other occasions and peeping into her home, as well. On that June 19 call, deputies warned David Johnson about trespassing.
On June 24, Monica Johnson requested a protective order against her husband. A temporary restraining order was granted, then extended on July 6 until Aug. 24 when a hearing was set to consider the protective order.
Gandy’s group was critical of how Monica Johnson’s domestic violence case was handled, saying the system had failed her. She noted that sometimes prosecutors can use other evidence to prosecute. Other jurisdictions have begun to use photographs of injuries, medical records and outside witnesses to move forward with some cases when victims won’t cooperate.
In a written statement, Wiley rejected the assessment his office dropped the ball, saying Monica Johnson had been “noncompliant at the scene” and then “formally requested the charges be dropped.”
Charlotte Guidry, spokeswoman for 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin, said that office had no statement from the victim or evidence to prosecute in that case.
The District Attorney’s Office did, however, place David Johnson in its probation program, which included anger management and other conditions, that started in July. The domestic abuse count against Johnson also remained standing, Guidry said.
The reality, say those who work with the victims of domestic violence, is that women who kill the partner attacking them often go to prison.
“St. Gabriel prison is full of women who killed their abuser in self-defense and are serving life without parole,” said Tania Tetlow, a Tulane University law professor and domestic violence expert.
“We may let you stand your ground against a stranger but not against an abusive husband,” Tetlow said of society as a whole.
Some of that, she said, can be seen in trial juries.
“They tend to focus on why the woman got stuck in an abuse relationship and not focus on the choice she had between dying and defending herself,” Tetlow said. “The reality is that people don’t understand it’s far easier to stay in an abusive relationship than leave and end up dead. Because leaving is the ultimate challenge to (an abuser’s) authority.”
Advocate staff writer David Mitchell contributed to this story.