Seminole County sheriff's deputies Marvin Williams and Robbie Chase Whitebird lost their lives two years ago on the type of call that makes law enforcement officers extremely wary — domestic abuse.
Patsie Hobert had called 911 asking for help in getting her son, Ezekiel Hobert, 26, out of her house in Seminole. He already was facing a charge of trying to strangle her. Hobert is accused of opening fire at the deputies with a rifle when they went to his mother's door.
Williams, 43, was shot outside the residence, and Whitebird, 23, died inside the home.
Responding to abuse
State officials say domestic violence cases are some of the most difficult situations to deal with for both victims and law enforcement. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month.
“Domestic violence calls are one of the more unpredictable and dangerous calls that an officer will respond to,” said Oklahoma City police Sgt. Jennifer Wardlow. “You usually have people who are very upset, tempers are flared and it's an unpredictable situation.”
“You don't know when you're walking into it if it's a verbal argument or something that has escalated into some type of physical altercation.”
Wardlow said officers in the domestic violence unit worked 6,492 cases in 2010. The numbers are on track to reach the same level this year.
Upholding the law
Oklahoma statutes include misdemeanor and felony charges for domestic abuse, but it's up to officials to decide the victim in a relationship and the appropriate punishment.
Defense attorney Dustin Phillips said the Oklahoma Legislature decided to make domestic violence by strangulation a felony in July 2005.
When an offender hits a spouse, Phillips said it is considered a misdemeanor if the offender has no prior convictions of abuse.
He said a domestic violence felony can also be filed if the offender causes great bodily injury, meaning any type of bone fracture, disfigurement, impairment of a body part or substantial risk of death.
Phillips said domestic violence is prevalent.
“And there's usually a lot more in the lower income,” he said. “I've actually had cases where the man was accused of hitting the woman, and a year later I've defended the woman accused of hitting the same man.”
Phillips said the hard part about defending domestic abuse offenders is that he sees victims return to the people who hit them.
“A woman came in and hired me because her boyfriend beat her up. Her boyfriend was a drunk, angry bad person,” Phillips said. “He would continually beat her up, lock her in the closet. Things you can't imagine.”
According to a report from the Office of Attorney General, Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, 5,386 incidents of domestic violence were reported throughout Oklahoma County in 2009.
That same year, 25 people died as a result of domestic abuse. In 2010, 21 people died from domestic violence, according to data from July 1.
Prosecutor Melissa Blanton said the number includes both homicides and suicides. She said often victims see those as the only ways out of dangerous situations.
“We have strong laws, but the enforcement of the laws isn't always the strongest,” she said. “Law enforcement and prosecutors don't hold offenders as accountable as much as they can.”
Blanton said she has been working on domestic violence cases for 10 years and worked as an assistant district attorney in Grant and Garfield counties before joining the Young Women's Christian Association in Enid.
Blanton has prosecuted many abuse cases, and said domestic abuse can occur in any type of relationship, including same-sex domestic violence. She said it's more common than people realize, but underreported sometimes.
“People who are not out and if they report the domestic abuse, they may face discrimination or friends and family may not know,” Blanton said.
Some of her caseloads also have involved victims as offenders.
One of the cases she recalls is a woman who stabbed her husband in the back with a knife while he was leaving the kitchen. The woman was arrested on a complaint and later told authorities she had been battered for years.
“If the female was really the victim, there's usually evidence. Domestic violence is not just a one-time incident,” she said.
Women in prison
Blanton said she could charge a victim with a lesser crime or drop the case altogether if evidence shows the victim was acting in self-defense.
According to an annual report from the state Correction Department, about 71 percent of women in prison have endured domestic abuse. About 36 percent of female inmates have been raped after the age of 18.
“There have been cases where they felt it was self-defense,” Blanton said. “The majority of women in prison appear to be victims of some type of domestic violence in their past.”
Domestic Violence defined in Oklahoma statute.
Domestic Abuse is an assault and battery against a current or former spouse, a present spouse of a former spouse, a former spouse of a present spouse, parents, a foster parent, a child, a person otherwise related by blood or marriage, a person with whom the defendant is or was in a dating relationship as defined by Section 60.1 of Title 22 of the Oklahoma Statutes, an individual with whom the defendant has had a child, a person who formerly lived in the same household as the defendant, or a person living in the same household as the defendant.
Felony, misdemeanor sentences
Felony domestic assault and battery carries a sentence of up to 4 years in prison
Misdemeanor domestic assault and battery carries a sentence of up to 1 year in the county jail and/or a fine up to $1,000
Felony domestic assault and battery by strangulation carries a sentence of 1-3 years in prison and/or a fine up to $3,000 if the person has no prior convictions. If they have a prior conviction for felony domestic abuse, they could serve 3-10 years in prison and/or pay a fine up to $20,000.
* Any conviction for domestic abuse requires the completion of a 52-week domestic violence program. The courts are required to set a review date of no more than 120 days out to review whether the defendant is making satisfactory progress in their domestic violence classes.
* A person convicted of either felony or misdemeanor domestic abuse is prohibited from possessing a firearm.
Domestic violence cases, deaths by county in 2010
Oklahoma County — 5,608 cases, deaths: 21
Tulsa County — 5,839 cases, deaths: 12
Comanche County — 1,511 cases, deaths: 7
Muskogee County — 775 cases, deaths: 5
Canadian County — 456 cases, deaths: 0
Lincoln County — 158 cases, deaths: 0
Logan County — 108 cases, deaths: 1
Kingfisher County — 18 cases, deaths: 0