Physical and Verbal Abuse Can Kill!
A Case Study of Kevin and Lisa
by Del Hungerford (2010)
After attending the sentencing of my teacher friend’s husband (we’ll call him Kevin) that I speak about in the article “Advice for Ministers,” I learned more about how the court system in our area deals with domestic violence. As a recap, Kevin strangled his pregnant wife (we’ll call her Lisa) and then lit the house on fire to destroy the evidence. There had been one prior “domestic dispute” on police record that resulted in an injury to Lisa.
In this article, I will give a quick synopsis of what happened in the sentencing, followed by showing how the signs of abuse could have possibly led to the saving of Lisa's life. As society begins to understand the underlying issues of domestic violence, the hope is to "read" the signs more effectively in order to prevent tragedy.
Our current legal system in relation to this case:
Our court systems appear to put everything into a box and classify it. I could tell from listening to the judge and lawyers from both sides, the issue of domestic violence was never explored in Lisa's death. Kevin’s anger was discussed but not in relation to the physical abuse, which ultimately led to her death. Right before the judge read his sentence, he said to Kevin that this case was odd to him. Normally, when people commit these kinds of crimes, there’s a form of chemical dependency (alcohol or drugs) contributing to the action behind the crime. Kevin didn’t fit the “profile” of what the judge was used to seeing in his courtroom. Kevin was an intelligent man and the judge couldn’t understand why Kevin could do something as heinous as this crime.
When it came to sentencing, the judge was also not very happy that Kevin couldn’t provide a better explanation as to what happened and why. This was a strike against Kevin when the judge gave his ruling. Part of the plea bargain was to tell the family what happened on the day of the murder. According to the judge, that was not satisfactorily met.
What we know about Kevin and Lisa:
Kevin is a Christian. Both he and Lisa were active in church, Bible studies, and various other Christian related activities. By all accounts, they led exemplary Christian lives that appeared evident to those around them. They suffered the normal issues that most newlyweds struggle with; not being able to “back down” (as Kevin’s father put it) or “defer” to the other when one didn’t agree. As with most couples in any kind of marriage, it takes time to learn to live with each other and to honor and respect each other’s wishes. So, by all accounts, the marriage of Kevin and Lisa looked like it had some rough edges but was improving with time.
However, it did come out in court that Kevin had an "explosive anger" problem. Family members and two psychologists attested to this. One even gave a name for it; while the other agreed Kevin had an anger problem but was unwilling to give it a label. Both psychologists agreed that Kevin showed no signs of mental illness. Kevin’s issues stemmed from childhood where he’d explode for no apparent reason. He’d been in counseling for this as a high school student and after the domestic dispute, had gone to anger management counseling. One of the psychologists pointed out that Kevin reacts to people’s emotions that he’s close to. It was the emotional part of the marriage that he struggled with. This psychologist then stated that Kevin needed treatment in learning how to be empathetic so he could feel what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes.
By first look, it appeared that Kevin was a regular guy who simply had an anger problem. However, if you look deeper into his relationship with Lisa, a different picture is painted. At several times in the relationship, some of Lisa’s friends told her to leave Kevin, especially after he hurt her, causing enough harm that she missed two weeks of school.
After Lisa's death, the judge wanted answers as to “why” Kevin could commit such an act. The news media and family wanted the same answers but none came forth. It's possible that had the situation been investigated from the standpoint of looking at Kevin as an abuser, those desiring the truth, may have found some answers.
What does Kevin's behavior demonstrate?
In viewing web sites and reading materials on abuse, the root issue behind "abusive behaviors" involves control. When an abuser feels he/she is losing control, this is when the problems escalate and the partner could be in danger. Kevin’s control problems could be seen in the small things. For example, most husbands don’t call their wives constantly to check up on them whenever they are apart, as Kevin did. In addition, the wife doesn’t often get nervous and call home to report to her husband what she’s doing. Lisa would do this and tell her friends that Kevin cared so much about her. When seeing them in public at school functions, it was hard to tell that they were married. With other spouses, even though they weren’t affectionate with each other in front of the students, you still had some idea they were married because you could see the respect between them. I personally never saw this with Kevin and Lisa.
With exploring what’s behind domestic violence in Kevin's case, there is a possible answer. Court systems appear not to recognize the "act of" domestic violence as valid criteria in a murder or assault case. In order for an answer to have come forth in this case, Kevin would have had to undergo more intense counseling. A certain line of questioning could have explained why he would explode in anger for no apparent reason and why he could not feel the emotions of others.
Let’s look at what was said in court about Kevin:
The prosecution summed Kevin up in their closing arguments:
- Kevin had a history of explosive anger, as noted by his father during the trial.
- Kevin took action to avoid accountability for causing the death of his wife and unborn child by setting the house on fire (which was a deliberate action).
- Family members and both psychologists noted that it wasn't known when Kevin's explosive anger could be triggered again.
- It’s unsure whether Kevin could be rehabilitated or not.
- This tragedy still occurred despite all the previous counseling Kevin had undergone.
- The prosecuting attorney stated that Kevin was unwilling to take responsibility for his actions. This was shown through several instances that were brought up by lawyers on both sides.
Rehabilitation or Not?
The judge tried to determine if Kevin could be rehabilitated. Because both psychologists had differing opinions on that topic, it was hard for the judge to make a determination. This is where a specialist in domestic violence could have given insight into the mind of an abuser. There’s enough evidence through research and case studies to show the tendencies of the “typical” abuser just like there’s a code book for psychologists (currently the DSM-4 with the DSM-5 soon to come out) that determines the symptoms and treatments for each type of mental illness. If a psychologist can show in a court setting typical actions of someone who’s mentally ill, then why not explore the actions of typical abusers?
After determining that Kevin did not suffer from mental illness, the focus was on his unexplained explosive anger. In the event that Kevin could learn the basis for his anger and to show empathy for those close to him, it’s possible that he could be rehabilitated, according to one of the psychologists. All things are possible but what's the process and probability for change? For the sake of labeling Kevin, we know he’s an abuser because he killed his wife and had prior incidences of domestic violence. Because of that, he fit the description of what many call an abuser. Although he only admitted to three incidences of hurting his wife, who knows how many more there actually were.
For Kevin to change, he would need to work on redeveloping his character. Character takes time to build and many are unwilling to be patient through this process. Change for Kevin would be all about making the necessary paradigm shifts that allow for character redevelopment. How many of us are truly willing to start from scratch? Kevin will have at least twenty years in prison to figure that out. Is it long enough? Time will tell. There’s no guarantee that he wouldn’t commit a similar crime if he got angry enough.
When Kevin is up for parole, there might be enough evidence through additional case studies to lead one direction or another. The only way this can be determined is to begin approaching domestic violence cases in our court systems from the standpoint of the mindset of an abuser.
My thoughts that I wrote down as the sentencing progressed:
- Kevin didn't fit the profile of an abuser, according the to the judge. Because this was outside the judge's realm of understanding, nothing made sense to him.
- After listening to the judge, it appears the belief system of "abuse only happens in bad homes" is still an accepted paradigm. People who make a lot of money, live in Christian homes, are intelligent, and appear to be doing well, shouldn't have cases of domestic violence.
- Control appears to be a major factor, although this was never explored by lawyers.
- Because of Kevin's anger issues, how could anyone possibly predict whether he would explode again? The judge and both psychologists tried to answer this question, to no avail.
- It’s time to have evaluation of domestic violence cases on the underlying issues that contribute to the abuse within the court system.
- How can you be a compassionate person if you can’t feel the emotions of others? When the psychologist revealed that Kevin struggled with emotional issues, this was a red flag to me that there are greater underlying problems that could have answered the “why” of this crime.
- Kevin's Christianity, didn't stop him from committing murder. He may still believe in God and consider himself a Christian.
What we can learn about abuse through this case:
- Abuse in a Christian marriage is NOT limited to families where drug and alcohol are a key factor.
- Abuse in a Christian marriage can happen in Christian homes.
- Abuse in a Christian marriage can happen to families where the married couple appears happy.
- Abuse in a Christian marriage in marriage can happen in families where the husband and wife are intelligent people, both with college degrees and good jobs.
- Abuse in a Christian marriage in marriage can happen to marriages where the couple is well off financially or doesn’t have financial issues.
- Abuse in a Christian marriage can happen in marriages where neither party has had any trouble with the law.
- Abuse in a Christian marriage that kills is not limited to someone with a mental illness.
NOTE: People who call themselves "Christian" are still going to struggle with the same issues everyone has. Being a Christian does not exempt people from having pain in their lives or the ability to act better than everyone else. Christians grow up by making mistakes just like the rest of the human race.
Warning signs that Kevin could have abusive tendencies (as noted in many books about abuse):
- Kevin had a difficult time holding down a job (via friends who knew the couple).
- Kevin often lied to his wife about major issues in his life. For example, the couple was kicked out of married student housing in college for Kevin’s lack of attendance. It was only when they were notified by the college of the eviction before Lisa found out.
- Kevin struggled with following-through in most things in his life, especially his school work (according to his father).
- Kevin had an explosive anger problem that stemmed from childhood.
- Kevin struggled with empathizing and seeing the emotions of those close to him. These kinds of things are what set off his explosive anger. He couldn’t relate to Lisa’s emotions (as discussed by Kevin's legal team).
- As an athlete in high school, Kevin struggled with anger issues.
- It appears that Kevin was often not held responsible for his actions as a result of his anger (via friends that knew him).
All of the warning signs listed above are consistent with abusers. Some have all of these signs, and others, only a few. The main difference being that often abusive people hold down good jobs and can be stellar citizens in their church or community. This is what can fool authorities, pastors, and friends. By looking for the underlying issues that cause problems in a marriage, one must look to the root of the problem.
In my case, it was a domestic violence counselor who helped me understand that my reactions to my husband, Todd, were as a result of the control that he wanted over me. Todd wanted control over everything in our lives, including what I did and how I did it. This took time to become apparent, and in the case of Kevin and Lisa. In a parallel between mine and Lisa's marriage, the control was beginning to show publically within the first two years of marriage. Kevin's anger management counseling worked for a time but because other issues obviously were not dealt with, he snapped and then killed his wife and unborn child. Kevin lacked control over his anger. An abuser is often very out of control in some area of his/her personal life. This shows up in various forms, as it did with Kevin and his inability to follow through with school. In order to feel in control, the abuser must control.
As we begin to study the specifics behind various domestic violence cases in a court setting, we may begin to see the same patterns of an abuser, similar to how a psychologist sees those with a mental illnesses. Although many women are able to get away from their abusers, there are just as many who don’t and pay for it with their lives. These women are often not afraid of their husbands, much like Lisa wasn’t afraid of Kevin. Other women are afraid and after leaving, are still murdered. Until we as a society begin to look at the underlying factor(s) that are involved in domestic violence, we will not understand the “why” question. In a perfect world, it would have been nice to give Lisa’s family that answer. Maybe by her example and study of this and other cases, we will begin to see answers.
Christian friends that knew both Kevin and Lisa, supported Kevin in prayer and love throughout year he was waiting to go to trial. Although they disagreed with his actions, they knew that God still loves Kevin, despite his actions. During the trial, it was obvious that Kevin's parents still love and support their son. Why would God do no less? Kevin made a very poor choice that led to the death of his wife and unborn child. From the way he appeared in court and what he said to the judge, one knows that he was remorseful. He finished his statement with the quote "I've no choice but to atone for my unforgiveable acts." The judge agreed and gave him the maximum sentence allowed by Idaho law for his crime.
Being a Christian doesn't exempt one from committing horrible crimes. As I said in my article "Advice for Ministers," it's important to pay attention to the "symptoms" of abuse because it's more than likely happening right under your nose. If more attention had been paid to the abuse factor of Kevin's and Lisa's marriage, it's possible that she would still be alive. She didn't heed the warning signs. She was believing God for restoration of her marriage, despite what behaviors she saw in Kevin. To the person who doesn't understand this: In order to have an idea of where the typical Christian is coming from, when "believing God" for something, this simply means that you look past the circumstance and trust that God can (and will) work the impossible. In the case of an abusive marriage, this is often to the detriment of Christian women. Too many are ending up dead at the hands of their abuser.
It's fine to have faith in God for healing a broken marriage but when there's been abuse (especially if one's life could be threatened), the victim can still continue to pray for restoration, but must get out of the home and be safe until (or if) the abuser has demonstrated true change. As a friend of mine says... "Hearing God - easy; Character - hard!" It's easy to hear and see what we are supposed to do but the actual walking it out and then having it stick, is the tough part. Building character is no different than building massive structures. They both take time. Kevin may have been in counseling and was working on his anger issues but obviously his character was not at a level that he could yet be trusted. He and Lisa were reunited too soon after their separation. That decision ultimately cost Lisa her life. If we could only learn...
A Note to Lisa:
You and your baby will be greatly missed.
You were a bright shining star for students and teachers alike.
We enjoyed your smile and charismatic personality.
I wished that we would have had a chance to sit down and talk.
I felt compelled to meet with you, as I told you after our last staff meeting of the year.
Within two weeks, you were dead.
I never got that chance.
Maybe by studying what happened to you, another life can be saved.
Your memory will continue to be in our hearts.