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House passes pair of bills toughening domestic violence sentencing

Man about to beat his wife

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

The House passed a pair of bills on Tuesday that could make the murder of a spouse in the presence of their child a capital offense and toughen sentencing for other non-homicide domestic violence offenses when committed in the presence of a child.

The bills’ sponsor, Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Killen, said the bills are intended to deter any domestic violence in the presence of a child.

“Just like any criminal offense, if you know there’s a harsh penalty you may think twice before committing the act,” Pettus said. “I think it’s good to do anything to prevent these things from happening, especially in front of children.”

Alabama already has a long list of offenses that when coupled with murder result in a capital offense punishable by the death penalty. If someone kills someone while committing a robbery or burglary, for example, that’s a capital offense.

One of Pettus’ bills would make the murder of a parent or guardian in front of their own child an aggravating factor when prosecuting murder, which could make the murder punishable by the death penalty. The child would have to be younger than 14 for the capital offense to apply.

Pettus said Thursday that the bills could also prevent future domestic violence by preventing children from learning that behavior.

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“If they see their parents doing it, they may grow up and think it’s okay to act like this,” Pettus said. “It’s not okay.”

On average, one in three women and one in four men have been victims of physical violence by their partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. One in four women and one in seven men have been victims of sever physical violence.

One in 15 children are exposed to domestic violence and 90 percent are eyewitnesses.

The second bill of the two would double the length of sentences for first- and second-degree felony domestic violence if the crime is committed in the presence of a minor under the age of 14.

Some Democrats argued that Pettus was expanding the use of the death penalty and adding more prisoners to already overcrowded state prisons.

“These bills blow my mind,” said Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham. “It doesn’t protect the victim. At the end of the day, y’all are just adding more overcrowding to the system.”

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, agreed.

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“Y’all are just trying to add some other way for somebody to get the electric chair,” Rogers said. “I’m against the death penalty. That’s why I’ll vote against this bill.”

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, a longtime advocate against the death penalty who successfully passed a bill last year ending judicial override, raised a different concern, though.

England said domestic violence victims could have to choose between pressing charges or doing what’s best for their child. The prosecution could have to prove a child was “in the presence” of the crime by having the child testify on the stand — potentially against their own parent.

“The likelihood of me as a parent pursuing that case, knowing that my child is going to have to testify, goes substantially down,” England said. “The death penalty bill was bad in the sense that you’re attributing someone else being involved to an enhancement in punishment, but this one could actually, potentially lead to more domestic violence cases with prosecutions being dismissed to protect kids.”

The bill will move up to the Senate.


Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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