Maine homicide rate not on track to break records

Posted June 29, 2010, at 9:45 p.m.

BROOKS, Maine — When someone picked up a rifle and shot Deborah Littlefield on Friday, she became the 13th person killed in Maine in 2010 — and the fourth homicide in just two days.

Jittery Mainers might be alarmed at what feels like an unwelcome rise in violence, but Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said statistics don’t prove that to be true.

Maine’s historic homicide average is 24 per year, he said Tuesday, with about half of those classified by police as acts of domestic violence. With the year nearly half over, the state’s homicide rate is not on track to break recent records, he said. Six of this year’s homicides have been classified as “domestics,” he said, including the death of Deborah Littlefield, allegedly at the hands of her husband, Michael Littlefield.

The homicide rate in Maine has had some fluctuations recently, according to information provided by the Maine Department of Public Safety’s Public Information Office. In 2008, when 31 people were killed, it marked a 32 percent increase from the 2007 rate. The 2008 murder rate was the highest since 1989, when 40 people were killed.

In 2009, 26 people were victims of homicide, with 10 of those — 38 percent — classified as acts of domestic violence.

For Kathleen Morgan, executive director of New Hope For Women, a midcoast agency devoted to ending domestic violence, each death is one too many.

“I always think, when someone dies, it’s a message to us, the community, that we could have done better by them,” she said Tuesday. “It affects the entire community. Everybody’s harmed. Everybody’s life will never be the same.”

According to a police affidavit obtained at Belfast District Court on Monday, Michael Littlefield, 48, told a friend that he had killed his 49-year-old wife because she had been “ragging his ass” over a muffler he had purchased recently for his pickup truck. After the shooting, he lay down beside his wife’s body and contemplated killing himself, but didn’t get up the nerve, the friend told police.

Police have said the couple did not seem to have a history of domestic violence.

Littlefield’s obituary, published on the Republican Journal’s website, said the couple had been married for 30 years and had three children and five grandchildren. The obituary said she worked as a registered nurse at Tall Pines retirement home in Belfast. Colleagues there have expressed their shock and sadness about Littlefield’s death.

Family members contacted over the weekend declined to speak to the media.

“The number of people affected by his action is enormous,” Morgan said. “How did we fail them, that this occurred?”

She said that in her experience, domestic violence homicides do not come “out of nowhere” — unless there is some kind of unusual extenuating circumstance.

“Somewhere, somebody knew things weren’t right here,” she said. “Somebody knew. The first incidence of domestic violence is rarely death.”

Morgan said that domestic violence usually begins with emotional abuse or name-calling, and then escalates, possibly into physical violence.

“Abusers oftentimes think they’re justified in their behavior,” she said. “The No. 1 reason men give when they abuse is that they’re just trying to teach her something. They did it for her own good.”

The No. 1 reason women stay in abusive relationships is because they love their partners — who are not abusive all the time, Morgan said.

According to statistics obtained through the U.S. Department of Justice website, women are much more likely than men to be killed by their intimate partners.

In 2005 — the most recent year data appear to be available — 33 percent of women killed in homicides were killed by their intimate partners. That same year, 2.5 percent of men killed in homicides were found to be killed by their intimate partners.

Morgan said that her agency would like to express condolences to Deborah Littlefield’s family and friends.

“It’s a complete heartbreaker,” she said. “It was one of those, when you hear the news, you just sit down and are stunned.”

She made a final point about Littlefield’s homicide.

“Find out what the muffler cost,” Morgan said. “That’s what he thought her life was worth.”

The New Hope for Women hot line number is 800-522-3304. The statewide domestic violence help line is 866-83-4HELP.

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