AUGUSTA – With a higher proportion of killings this year due to domestic violence, people touched by the issue came to the State House on Tuesday to testify for bills intended to make Maine safer.

On April 1, Lavinia Gelineau, 25, of Westbrook, became Maine’s fourth domestic violence death and the fifth homicide of the year. That brings the percentage of homicides in Maine linked to domestic violence up to 80 percent, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Saying abuse often escalates when a woman becomes pregnant, Kim Roberts of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence spoke for L.D. 884, which would toughen punishment for those who kill pregnant women.

“Homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant women in the United States,” said Roberts, whose coalition represents the nine domestic abuse agencies in Maine. Since 2003 Maine has had two pregnant domestic violence homicide victims, she said.

In 2003, 20-year-old Heather Fliegelman Sargent, who was eight months pregnant, was murdered by her husband, Roberts said. In 2004, 17-year-old Treasure Genaw, who was 12 weeks pregnant, was killed, and her former boyfriend has been charged with murder.

There is a connection between domestic abuse and the killing of a pregnant woman, said Senate President Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport, sponsor of An Act to Protect Motherhood.

“Pregnancy often sparks or worsens violence in a dysfunctional relationship,” Edmonds said. “Perhaps because of financial stress, perhaps because of jealousy, fear of commitment or whatever, a batterer is often urged to extreme violence by the news of his partner’s pregnancy,” she said.

Often the batterer targets the woman’s abdomen to punish her and harm her pregnancy, Roberts said.

Edmonds’ bill would allow the courts to give sentences between 25 years to life in prison. She said she’s not seeking to make the death of an unborn child a crime, because that “would take us to a place we do not want to go,” defining when life begins. Edmonds’ bill would ensure that the focus of the legal system is on the pregnant woman, she said.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara agreed that domestic violence can increase when a woman is pregnant. The “Motherhood Act” would ask the court to “assign special weight” in determining the sentence when a pregnant woman is killed, he said.

In other bills heard before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Michaelina Birrell of Gorham urged passage of L.D. 1245, which is designed to improve the legal system.

After enduring “five years of hell” and being chased with an M-16 rifle, Birrell said she asked authorities for help, but it took weeks for police to serve the protection order. When she finally got to court, she encountered multiple delays and found that a protection order does little good, she said.

Carol Perkins of the Abused Women’s Advocacy Project in Lewiston testified against L.D. 732, saying it would weaken protection orders. The bill provides a defense for violators of protection orders when nonphysical contact or communication is initiated by the victim.

Perkins said in written testimony that victims are already wrongly blamed for initiating contact.

The committee is expected to take up the bills on April 12.

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