Bill to admit domestic violence priors as evidence in murder cases awaits Quinn

As the murder trial against former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson gets under way, his history of domestic violence is expected to play a key role. Peterson is accused of murdering his then-wife Kathleen Savio in 2004, and prosecutors are expected to use his previous record of abuse against Savio to try and convict him.

A new piece of legislation, HB 5264, would mandate that evidence of a prior domestic violence offense be admissible in first- or second-degree murder cases that involves domestic violence.

Such information could also result in a guilty defendant getting a harsher sentence

Sen. Pamela J. Althoff, a sponsor of the bill, told The Chicago Reporter that in the prosecution of a defendant accused of first- or second-degree murder against their partner, evidence of domestic violence is sometimes used. But not always. And it depends on the judge.

"The courts were not dealing with the issue uniformly," she said.

If HB 5264 is signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, "numerous court cases in Cook County that were denied an opportunity to introduce the evidence" could be revisited.

Vicki Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that she supports the law's attempt to show a defendant "had a history," and that bringing in evidence of domestic violence "often makes a difference, especially in the sentencing phase."

But giving harsher penalties to defendants with domestic violence records may not prevent further domestic violence, says Smith, especially with preventative programs for domestic violence losing funds across the board.

The money being lost is from all areas, "public, private, whatever," said Smith.

Gov. Quinn's budget proposal in April included reducing funding for domestic violence shelters from $18.8 million a year to $16.5 million, which would lead some of the state's 63 shelters to close their doors, according to Smith.

Even before the cuts went into place, the National Census of Domestic Violence Services found that in 2011 in Illinois there were 904 unmet requests for domestic violence assistance.

Smith said that most of the loss of funding hurt crisis intervention services, which develop a safety plan, find services and help find a counselor.

The census also found that 61 percent of unmet requests were for counseling, legal advocacy and children's support services.  The reason? Fifty percent of Illinois' 62 shelters said they were unable to provide services due to lack of funding.

While most people who commit domestic violence don't end up in the same seat as Peterson--facing murder charges with domestic violence on their record--Smith says that if preventive care is not given, violence does often get worse over time.

"It's not a clear cut cause and effect type of thing, but what we know over time is that if there is not intervention," said Smith, domestic violence "will continue and it will get worse."

Empowering women and "letting them know help is out there," said Smith, can keep domestic violence from becoming tragic.

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