• The San Juan Daily Star

Preliminary study of femicides: Courts failed to properly assess ‘lethality indicators’

By The Star Staff

During a court hearing in March, 35-year-old Andrea Ruiz Costas pleaded in court for the arrest of her ex-boyfriend, who had subjected her to a pattern of abuse, stalking and threats, but a judge denied her petition for a restraining order.

A month later, her ex-boyfriend, Miguel Ocasio, confessed to murdering Ruiz after her burned body was found in Cayey. This month, Ocasio committed suicide in prison.

Now, a preliminary study conducted by a task force appointed earlier this year is attempting to find out why the Puerto Rico courts failed to protect women like Ruiz, one of more than 81 victims of femicides on the island since last year.

The research, consisting of study on seven specific cases that were handled by the courts but ended up with the victims’ killings, found that the judges overseeing all of the cases failed to assess the presence of “lethality indicators,” including a previous history of abuse, increased severity of abuse over time, or accessibility to weapons, in the testimonies of the women filing for restraining orders or filing criminal complaints.

Another alarming finding was that the courts were not involved in 91.3% of the 81 femicides, according to the report.

“People are not going to the courts for help,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Maite Oronoz Rodríguez said.

The task force that conducted the investigation was charged with reviewing the judicial, administrative and operational processes related to cases of gender-based violence. While the report does not explicitly identify the victims in the seven cases by name, Oronoz Rodríguez said that one can “intuitively” recognize some of them based on the information mentioned in the report.

From March 16, 2020 to June 30 of this year, island courts issued some 13,686 restraining orders. About 10 restraining orders were issued in the cases that were analyzed except for one. According to the study, that means that in 99% of the cases, restraining orders do accomplish their purpose.

However, judges must do a risk assessment to determine how safe or at risk the survivor of gender-based violence is of facing further violence in the future. Different types of risk assessment have been developed for these survivors, although the tools cannot scientifically predict that violence will reoccur, the study says.

The evaluations usually consist of a review of the history of abuse (physical, sexual, persecution or harassment, controlling behavior, and emotional abuse), including frequency and changes in severity over time, intimidation and threats, the use or access to weapons, and other relevant problems observed by the victim or the alleged aggressor.

In the seven cases reviewed, the following lethality factors were identified, including that the aggressor had mental health problems; there was a separation of the parties; stalking of the victim; calls to relatives and friends to convince the victim to return to the accused; attempted suffocation; access to weapons, with training in their use; and history of previous restraining orders and violation of restraining orders. Of all the lethality factors, stalking was the most common “lethality indicator” present in the testimonies of the victims or those petitioning for a protection order, the task force said in the report.

“In the cases studied, the recordings do not show an evaluation of the lethality factors present in the testimonies of the petitioners,” the report sent to the STAR via email said. “The implementation of the best practices incorporated in the Manual of Protection Orders in Situations of Domestic Violence was not used either.”

Meanwhile, the remarks of one of the judges reveal that she discarded a large part of the petitioner’s testimony at the ex-parte restraining order hearing.

“The purpose of the report is not to look into how each judge managed each case, but to give us the tools to know which practices are not working,” Oronoz Rodríguez said.

An analysis of court hearing recordings found that in four cases “the judges who presided over them were respectful, empathetic, patient, and actively participated in the hearing to answer or clarify any questions asked.” But even in those cases, the parties didn’t receive any guidance after the issuance of a protection order outlining the consequences of violating the order.

The task force proposed to submit a final report with recommendations on Jan. 31, 2022.

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