Every abuse case can end like this one

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The tired refrain of domestic violence homicide in Maine is playing again.

Last week, a 37-year-old from Waterville named Richard Reynolds drove to where his estranged wife, Rhonda Reynolds-Wakefield, was staying in Fairfield. She had reportedly spoken the address aloud during a recent court hearing.

Richard Reynolds allegedly brought a handgun tucked into a sweatshirt and shot her dead. Their sons, 5 and 6, saw her die.

Since then, we’ve seen the accused killer stare blankly into his arraignment hearing on a murder charge, during which he reportedly said, “I don’t need an attorney.”

We can think of many things Reynolds might need. None is appropriate to print.

This one makes us angry. Angry because Reynolds-Wakefield, in escaping abuse, was executed in a spineless fashion. Angry because two children are forever scarred. Angry because of Reynolds’ apparent lack of remorse.

Angry, most of all, because a fatal judicial error may have occurred in that hearing.

When Reynolds-Wakefield spoke her address, the judge allowed Reynolds to hear it, despite the husband’s well-known abusive history, and her protection order against him. Reynolds’ ex-wife has since come forward to detail his abuse, and revealed her practice of renewing a protection order against him, year after year.

Judicial officials are mum about Reynolds-Wakefield’s disclosure, invoking the need for privacy in these delicate proceedings. Pity the privacy of Reynolds-Wakefield wasn’t as well protected. Perhaps two small boys would still have a mother today.

Family law attorneys and domestic violence advocates say the confidentiality of a victim’s address is paramount. In cases involving children, however, it remains commonplace for parents to reveal addresses for the purposes of visitation, although provisions exist to conceal them in certain cases.

Maine’s address confidentiality law, passed in 2002, which provides victims of domestic abuse, sexual violence or stalking an address for public records, is one such case. The state then pays to forward the victim’s correspondence from this public address to their actual – and confidential – place of residence.

Reynolds-Wakefield’s family says she was compelled by the court to disclose her address; it’s also possible she didn’t know her address could be legally concealed from her husband. Lawyers also chide judges for often treating matters involving allegations of abuse as routine, the onslaught of cases fostering judicial indifference.

Juliette Holmes-Smith, director of the Family Law Project at Pine Tree Legal Associates, said judges can “relax their guard” in protective cases, given the caseload. More than 10,900 protection from abuse and harassment cases were filed in Maine courts in 2005, according to state judiciary statistics.

“Safety has to be the first priority,” said Holmes-Smith. Yet warning signs, unless blaring like a fire alarm, are usually unapparent. The Reynolds case is a reminder to the courts, added Holmes-Smith, “to treat every case like this could happen.” It’s a lesson we all must heed.

But how many more domestic violence homicides must happen before we do?

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