With many people spending more time at home during COVID-19, the number of domestic violence homicides already has hit 16 so far this year in King County, compared to seven in all of 2019 and seven in 2018.
“It’s literally happening right now,” said King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Martin as he confirmed during a Oct. 15 phone interview that another case had been filed after a 17-year-old Seattle boy was charged with murdering his mother in Northgate.
“It’s deeply troubling,” Martin said. “I think the pandemic has revealed a lot of hard truths going on in our community with racial justice and disparity, and one of the hard truths has been what’s going on with domestic violence. People are drawn to the homicides, but it’s an aspect of a much larger pandemic within the pandemic of what is going on with domestic violence in the community, and not just here, but across the world.”
Martin, is chair of the Domestic Violence Unit for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The 16 domestic violence homicide cases so far this year, with all but one happening since the pandemic began in March, include:
■ Lester Purdell Thompson, 37, of Seattle, was charged with second-degree murder for allegedly killing Destinie Gates-Jackson, 36, of Seattle, his former girlfriend and mother of two of his children, on or about April 21, according to charging documents. Thompson pleaded not guilty in May. He remains in custody in the county jail at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. A judge denied bail. Thompson has a case hearing Jan. 22. A trial date was set by a judge (and continued) until Feb. 16.
The incident began with Kent Police investigating a report of a train-vehicle collision, but it turned into a murder investigation when detectives discovered a vehicle down the road from the tracks with a woman dead in the back seat of the car who died from strangulation. Thompson had been driving the car.
■ Cordonte Walker, 23, of Renton, faces a domestic violence first-degree murder charge for allegedly intentionally running over his girlfriend with his car after a dispute Aug. 27 on Kent’s East Hill. Walker remains in the King County jail at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent with bail set at $2 million. He pleaded not guilty and his next court date is Oct. 28, when a trial date could be set or attorneys could ask for more time to prepare the case.
During the attack, Lurdes Keymolen, 23, of Renton, died from blunt force trauma to many parts of her body consistent with being struck by a vehicle, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. Her pelvis was broken in several places and multiple ribs on both sides were fractured, resulting in damage to her lungs and massive internal bleeding. She also had a broken jaw, a black eye and trauma to her face and head.
Protection orders up
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office had 1,539 felony domestic violence referrals from law enforcement agencies through the end of September compared to 1,346 during the first nine months of last year.
“The felony assaults for the first two months of the pandemic were the two highest months of felony referrals we had ever seen,” Martin said. “Then we had a stark drop from many departments across the county, then a sharp increase in August that has leveled off. We are up about 20 percent for the year. It’ll be interesting to see where we end up.”
The number of domestic violence protection orders (from an abusive partner) reached 277 in September, compared to 232 in September 2019. The numbers were higher in July and August as well, but slightly lower in the previous three months.
“Protection orders are up,” Martin said, noting a new way of filing for a protection order. “We shifted from in person written to an entirely virtual electronic one, and we are doing more orders the last two months as the same time last year. … It’s a silver lining people can get that kind of relief.”
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office went to the new system in March. People previously had to go to courts in person to file for a protection order.
“We put in place an electronic alternative for people seeking an emergency protection order against a domestic abuser,” said Casey McNerthney, spokesman for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in an email. “This innovation — the first of its kind in Washington state — is something we’d been working on for months, and we moved up our launch date to immediately help people during the coronavirus pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, our services are now 100 percent telephonic, so survivors can work with advocates remotely.”
The University of Washington is leading a study about COVID-19 and “Civil Domestic Violence Protection Orders in King County: Implications for Population Health and Justice Equity.” The study began last month and is expected to conclude in January.
Researchers will look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has been disproportionately impacting domestic violence survivors of color. Many domestic violence survivors of color have few options seeking help when staying home with their abusive partner. Identifying the needs of domestic violence survivors of color during the pandemic and informing strategies that address those needs is a justice imperative toward promoting population health equity, according to the study’s purpose.
In addition to the 16 homicides, there have been 15 other violent King County deaths linked to domestic violence so far in 2020, according to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. That number includes the suicidal deaths in murder-suicide cases, two officer-involved shootings of domestic violence suspects, and other homicides perpetrated by convicted domestic violence offenders.
Steps to reduce DV
Martin said there is no easy and quick answer about how to reduce domestic violence incidents. But he said steps are underway, including to reduce access to firearms by domestic violence violators.
“Guns and domestic violence increases fatalities and the risk of suicide by domestic violence offenders who take their lives at a very high rate,” Martin said.
Martin said prevention of domestic violence needs to start with the education of children. He said the sexual education bill that was passed by the Legislature — and which appears on the Nov. 3 ballot as Referendum 90 — is one way to potentially reduce domestic violence. He co-wrote a op-ed piece in January in the Seattle Times in favor of the sex ed bill.
“For true culture change to happen around sexual and domestic violence, proactive education and prevention also is needed,” Martin said. “Too often, young people don’t know how to ask for and receive consent, or how to engage in healthy relationships. Access to this information is a critical part of the solution to end cycles of abuse, especially when the cycles are generational. It is particularly critical that young people receive reliable, accurate information in a digital age where harmful explicit materials are one click away.”
Martin said Team Up Washington (teamupwa.org) is one group trying to make changes at the youth level. The group’s mission is using sports as a platform to end sexual assault and dating abuse, and its initiative begins by expanding the reach of Coaching Boys Into Men and Athletes as Leaders, two violence prevention programs for high school athletes.
“They bring lessons to folks involved in sports, which is more difficult now with the pandemic,” Martin said. “But I assisted (last year) local high school football players with a playbook of coaching boys into men and for women athletes as leaders. It’s a program trying to teach and breakdown things that contribute to domestic violence, and ways to deal with aggression and jealousy. You can be aggressive on the field, but when you leave the field, you leave aggression on the field and do not bring it into a relationship.”
Martin met with a group of high school football players involved in the Team Up Washington program and came away impressed and hopeful.
“One of the most inspiring conversations I had was with young men after practice and what they learned to do,” Martin said. “It gives you some hope for the future that young people will not make the same mistakes the current generations are making.”
Martin also emphasized that more data about domestic violence cases is needed to help determine what works or doesn’t work to reduce incidents.
“Too often we drive policy by anecdote and story but it’s not the full answer you need on such a serious thing which has been with us a long time,” Martin said. “I would love to see less of it, especially now when we have so many cases that lead to terrible outcomes.”
To get help
■ For information about how to get help if in a domestic violence relationship, go to kingcounty.gov/how-do-i/domestic-violence.aspx.
The phone contacts include:
■ Domestic Abuse Women’s Network (DAWN), 425-656-7867
■ LifeWire, 425-746-1940
■ New Beginnings, 206-522-9472