After Amy Lake and her two children, Coty and Monica, were killed by her estranged husband, the public sentiment was that such a tragedy should not be allowed to happen again. “We couldn’t do anything to stop this,” was the response from some law enforcement officials.
A report by four retired police officers released this week should prompt a re-examination of that view. The report found specific shortcomings in Maine’s handling of domestic violence cases. These include a very low bail amount for those charged with violating a protection from abuse order and failure to confiscate and lock away guns owned by the alleged offender after the order was violated.
Changing laws and practices to try to reduce domestic violence murders should be a priority for the Legislature.
Steven Lake long demonstrated controlling behavior toward Amy and Monica, according to the report. For example, he was angry when his second child was a girl, saying he and his wife should give her up for adoption. He also delighted tripping Monica as she learned to walk, according to some of the 69 people interviewed for the report.
He also made threatening comments to and about Amy and shot ornaments off a family Christmas tree. The Lakes’ marriage began to deteriorate in 2009, with Steven becoming increasingly threatening.
In June 2010, he was arrested after threatening his family with a gun. He was released from jail after his father paid the $2,000 bail. Shortly thereafter, Amy obtained a protection from abuse order. Under the order, Steven was forbidden from possessing firearms. More than 20 guns were taken from his home and initially given to Amy’s parents for safekeeping. They felt uncomfortable with having the guns, wrapped them in a blanket and gave them to Steven’s parents. He used two of the guns to kill his wife and children and himself.
Police never took an inventory of the guns, and the court had no paperwork to indicate that Steven had submitted a list of guns or to show to whom he had surrendered the guns, according to the authors of the report, who had access to the official state police report on the murders and suicide. Such an inventory is required under state law. The report authors generously called this failure to follow state law a “fumble.”
Steven’s trial was delayed for a variety of reasons, including changing lawyers and a backlog of cases caused by a lack of funding for the courts, and was slated for July 5, 2011. He also was charged with violating the conditions of the protection from abuse order and again bailed out for $2,000.
This chronology highlights numerous changes that should be made, the report’s authors write. For one, bail in domestic violence situations should be much higher. In a recent burglary case, bail was set at $30,000, making the $2,000 bail for violating a protection from abuse order “ridiculously low.”
State Rep. Ken Fredette has submitted a bill to amend Maine’s bail code to require consideration of domestic violence when setting bail for people charged with crimes.
Also, trials should occur more expeditiously. “Rural areas must have court and trial capability much more frequently than is currently the case, including referral to other courts if necessary,” the authors recommend. “Continuations must be drastically minimized in these cases whether due to defense attorney preferences or court schedule challenges.”
Some of these changes will require addition funding, but many will not. What they will take is a change in attitude among some law enforcement officials and political leaders.