Two dozen women became victims of homicide in New Orleans in 2014, and that number is on pace to increase this year along with the total number of murders in the city.
One killing occurred June 3, when police believe Kernell Harrell shot his girlfriend, Melissa Hunter, inside a home in the Desire area. Her slumped body was found next to a bed in a house on Metropolitan Street. Days later, Harrell engaged a SWAT team in a lengthy standoff at a Gentilly motel before shooting himself.
A recent study confirms that the problem of frequent killings of women is not confined to New Orleans. Louisiana ranked fourth in the nation in the number of women killed by men in one-on-one violence, according to a survey of 2013 data released in September by the Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun control group.
The state has 83 percent more man-woman killings than the national average.
Only South Carolina, Alaska and New Mexico ranked worse.
Nationally, 1,615 women were murdered by men in single-victim, single-offender incidents in 2013.
The study found that of the Louisiana killings where a weapon could be identified, 55 percent involved firearms. Of the murders where a relationship of some sort between the victim and the killer could be determined, 93 percent of women were murdered by someone they knew.
Spurred by those sobering numbers, Louisiana passed new laws last year meant to make it easier to jail men for domestic violence and to take away their guns when they are convicted for it. Advocates say there is still a long way to go, however, before those changes start driving down the state’s high ranking in the number of women murdered.
Man-woman homicides dropped 31 percent nationally from 1996 to 2013, according to the study, but Louisiana barely budged.
“It’s bad,” said Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The only bright spot for her in the 2013 figures, she said, is that “it didn’t get worse, which in some ways actually is progress for us.”
Advocates single out three factors for Louisiana’s high ranking: easy access to guns, slow progress in implementing new legislation that allows the confiscation of weapons from men who commit domestic abuse, and the lack of victim services in many rural parishes.
A bill passed last year, named “Gwen’s Law” after a woman who was killed in an act of domestic violence, instituted a new so-called “cooling off” period before a judge holds a hearing on whether to grant bail for someone accused of domestic violence.
The Legislature also passed bills making it illegal for people to carry guns if they have been convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse battery or if they have had a permanent protective order against them related to a domestic violence crime.
It is too early to tell whether those changes will reduce the number of women killed by men in Louisiana. In many rural parishes, advocates say, the new laws are just starting to get attention from sheriffs and prosecutors.
“In some parishes, they have a pretty aggressive implementation plan,” Meeks said. “And in some parishes ... they’re kind of like, ‘Oh, well, if they turn their guns in, they do or they don’t.’ ”
Meeks said Lafourche Parish has emerged as a model for the state.
Lt. Valerie Martinez of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office said her agency has collaborated with the District Attorney’s Office and the clerk of court to create a comprehensive system of notifications and databases.
Offenders convicted of domestic abuse get letters informing them they must relinquish their guns. Martinez said she has even gone so far as to call the mothers of men convicted, just to make sure they get those notices.
“Our sole intention for this year is to create awareness, to educate individuals,” she said. “The next year John Doe gets caught with a gun anyway, at least we know we gave him an opportunity and educated him.”
The program took six to eight months to create from scratch, she said, and required the “cheerleading” of Sheriff Craig Webre. But with a model in place, she said, there is no reason other rural parishes cannot follow suit.
In the wake of the Legislature’s action last year, New Orleans also rolled out a new plan to combat domestic violence.
Mary Claire Landry, executive director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, said the city is complying with the new law barring men convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from carrying firearms.
“I think there’s been more education and training happening in Orleans Parish than in any other parish across the state,” she said.
The problem, Landry said, is that the law still lacks a mandate for a process forcing men to turn in their guns. There is no requirement that a sheriff or police force actually confiscate the weapons. That is a change she and other advocates would like to see passed into law.
“We’ve got to get better at this,” she said. “We’ve got to continue to work with the criminal justice system to hold batterers accountable.”