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Science vs. domestic violence

After Andrew David Moffatt threw his wife to the ground and kicked her in the face and chest, breaking her nose and a rib, Medford police used a new tool to assess whether Moffatt might severely harm or even murder her in the future.

The research-based Domestic Violence Lethality Screen for First Responders questionnaire helps police identify victims of domestic violence who are at the greatest risk of being seriously injured or killed by their partners.

Police interviewed Moffatt's wife and checked seven of the 11 boxes for warning signs — including that he had used a weapon against her or threatened her with a weapon, had a gun or had easy access to a gun, was jealous and controlled her daily activities, was unemployed and followed her, spied on her or left threatening messages.

When answers to questionnaires raise red flags, police work to connect victims with domestic violence hotline counselors, who help formulate a safety plan and try to get victims to use domestic violence services.

Use of the questionnaire has spread beyond the Medford Police Department to the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and other police departments in the Rogue Valley. The questionnaire is also used by law enforcement agencies in dozens of states.

In the 1980s, Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing developed a 20-question form based on risk factors for intimate-partner homicides. Her work became the model for the Domestic Violence Lethality Screen for First Responders, which was developed by the Maryland Network of Domestic Violence in 2003 for first responders such as police to use in the field.

As part of ramped-up domestic violence prevention efforts, the Medford Police Department began using the questionnaire after the area suffered a spate of domestic violence homicides.

Jordan Criado was sentenced to five life sentences after stabbing his wife and children to death in 2011. Bourne Huddleston was sentenced to at least 55 years in prison after shooting his wife in 2012 and leaving her body behind for their 10-year-old son to find. Jose Valencia-Gaona was sentenced to life in prison for stabbing a woman to death in 2013 after she rejected him.

Since Medford police began using the Domestic Violence Lethality Screen as part of its domestic violence outreach program, the city has not had a domestic violence homicide.

Using the questionnaire and connecting victims at high risk to services has proven effective in other jurisdictions. Maryland, for example, saw intimate-partner homicides fall 34 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to a 2013 study.

Jackson County Sheriff's Office Captain Tim Snaith said when officers respond to a scene, most victims are willing to talk to a domestic violence hotline counselor. Some victims are reluctant to seek help, so an officer will ask the counselor to try and follow up with the victim.

"The officers do their best to connect victims to a hotline counselor who can help them transition out of the situation," Snaith said. "It can be a vicious cycle. Domestic violence victims may rely on the person who's abusing them for food or a place to stay. This helps us ensure we're doing everything we can to help victims. Having a protocol in place is a huge step forward for the county."

Answers to the questionnaire can help law enforcement officials establish probable cause to arrest a suspect, he said.

Using the questionnaire also allows police to collect comprehensive, consistent information from victims to accompany police reports. That consistency is key in domestic violence situations, which are often dangerous and chaotic for first responders.

In the Moffatt case, police and paramedics were called to the scene of the assault May 11. His wife was rushed by ambulance to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center for treatment. Moffatt barricaded himself inside his home for several hours and then tried to flee the scene by running out the back. Police subdued him with a Taser and took him into custody, according to Jackson County Circuit Court documents.

Police seized four firearms, according to another standardized domestic violence form used by Medford police to record information about the assailant's prior history of violence, weapons used and/or seized, the victim's injuries and the victim's reported pain level on a scale of zero to 10.

Screening questionnaire answers can also play a role at every stage of a criminal case, according to Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Lull, who handles domestic violence cases.

"The assessment gives us a sense of the danger to a particular victim," he said.

Lull said the DA's Office uses the information when arguing in court about what level of bail is appropriate or that a defendant should not be released due to jail overcrowding.

"We don't want the defendant to get out and put the victim in danger," he said.

Moffatt has been held in the Jackson County Jail since his arrest on $100,000 bail, with a restriction in place that he not be released because of overcrowding.

Lull said prosecutors use the questionnaire answers when negotiating plea agreements and sentencing recommendations for defendants. If there is a low risk of danger, prosecutors may offer alternatives to jail or prison, such as probation.

"If there's a high degree of danger, we need to keep the victim safe," Lull said.

The answers are also sent to probation and parole officers so they can better understand the context of the crime and the convicted person's history, he said.

Moffatt has past convictions for fourth degree assault, harassment, driving under the influence of intoxicants and reckless driving.

On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and interfering with a police officer for the May 11 attack on his wife and confrontation with police.

Moffatt was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Moffat's wife, Lindsay Moffatt, said she believes the questionnaire and the work of Lull and MPD Detective Brandon Amaya — who administered the questionnaire to her and investigated the case — had a profound impact on her situation.

"It probably saved my life — or has so far," she said. "I owe a great amount of thanks to Det. Amaya and to Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Lull. They have been by my side to encourage me and to help me realize the gravity of the situation."

Domestic violence victims can contact Community Works' 24-hour hotline at 541-779-4357.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Andrew David Moffatt
Jail Commander Dan Penland walks through the Jackson County Jail. Police and prosecutors are working to keep domestic violence perpetrators locked up longer if a questionnaire turns up red flags. Mail Tribune file photo