Two hundred and ten dollars was the only barrier to Anthony McKinney bailing out of the East Baton Rouge Parish jail on a domestic violence count Friday. Just hours later, he repeatedly stabbed his girlfriend , authorities said, before he was shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy.
McKinney, who’d been arrested some 20 times on allegations including aggravated assault, was eligible for but not assigned to a so-called “Gwen’s Law” hearing by 19th Judicial District Judge Bonnie Jackson, who determined his bail after his arrest last Tuesday on the domestic violence charge.
The hearing — part of a recent law named after Gwen Salley, a north Louisiana woman murdered by her estranged husband — was designed to prevent the very scenario that left McKinney’s girlfriend in critical condition from stab wounds, advocates say. They argue arranging for one of these hearings could have given the court system time to assess whether McKinney posed a further threat to his girlfriend.
And so Baton Rouge’s latest widely publicized domestic crime has activated a common refrain among those whose work involves curbing domestic violence: Could he have been stopped?
The case also underscores the tension between wanting to provide sweeping protections for victims and possibly overstepping the due-process rights of the accused.
“It’s a terrible story, but it’s a great example of a lot of things we need to fix,” said Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Judge Jackson, who last year challenged Gwen’s Law on grounds it was too cumbersome, helped push through changes that went into effect this year that some say softened the measure. The law’s centerpiece contradictory hearing — in which both sides present evidence to influence how much bail is set by a judge — is now optional instead of mandatory. Typically, judges decide whether to hold a hearing, which is designed to present a fuller picture of a defendant than usually available at the time bail is determined.
Jackson said Monday she would not answer questions about how she decided on the 46-year-old McKinney’s bail, and she declined to comment generally on the topic.
Gwen’s Law has faced other criticism, including from East Baton Rouge Parish District Defender Mike Mitchell, who questions the legality of extending a hold on a defendant who has a right to bail and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, he said.
But what’s surfaced in conversations with those on both sides of the Gwen’s Law debate is the need for a risk-assessment tool to be used each time a domestic offender is arrested, a practice used across the country but not uniformly implemented in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“Had we had that instrument in place,” said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, “everybody including me, the (police) and the judge would have been given a number that suggests this person probably needs to remain in jail or there needs to really be some stringent conditions.”
A risk assessment tool consists of a number of standard questions that can reasonably predict whether an accused domestic offender is likely to commit further violence, he said.
“Unless and until there’s a certain way of determining which arrestee is going to be a danger — there’s a proper assessment tool to determine that — until that happens, there is no way for the court system to decide which one of these cases should be looked at more closely,” said Mitchell, the district defender.
Meeks and state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, who has initiated legislation to combat domestic violence, also agreed on the need for a risk-assessment tool in domestic violence cases. Implementing the practice would require training and additional staff to complete the process, Moore said.
One of the breakdowns in the current system is that prosecutors aren’t always immediately notified of arrests of domestic abuse suspects, said Moore. A defendant often bonds out before the DA’s Office has a chance to ask for a Gwen’s Law hearing, he said.
This can happen despite a clause in Gwen’s Law stating, “If the court decides not to hold a contradictory hearing, it shall notify the prosecuting attorney prior to setting bail.”
In looking at McKinney’s case in particular, some questioned whether his total bail of $1,500 was set too low. He had been booked on counts of domestic abuse battery with child endangerment and aggravated assault.
“It does, at first blush, seem to be on the low side, but I’m probably talking out of school not having all the information that the judge had,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, a former prosecutor who now practices criminal defense law and who sponsored what he says was a precursor to Gwen’s Law years ago.
Moore offered a similar interpretation that the bail for a man with McKinney’s criminal history seemed low, but also noted he hasn’t seen the material Jackson considered.
McKinney’s mother paid the 12 percent plus fees required to bond her son out of jail on his $1,500 bail, said bondsman David Thomas. She declined to comment.
As of Monday evening, McKinney’s girlfriend is in stable but critical condition, said East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks.
The only relative of McKinney that could be reached was his ex-wife, 44-year-old Jacqueline Howard. Married to McKinney for just a few months some 10 years ago, Howard described her ex as an “outgoing, happy, jolly person.”
“I was shocked about it,” she said of the news of McKinney’s alleged crime and death. “Because I’m like, ‘him?’... He wasn’t violent at all towards me.”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.