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As Published on Post-Gazette.com

Crack down on domestic violence in Allegheny County

March 8th, 2015
By Todd Spivak and Rebecca Canterbury

Maureen Karr got a temporary protection-from-abuse order against her husband on grounds that he threatened to burn their house down. Two weeks later, according to police, James Karr made good on his promise and his wife died in the fire.

In Pennsylvania, more than 150 people die every year from incidents involving domestic violence. Astonishingly, Allegheny County for two straight years has tallied more domestic-violence fatalities than any other Pennsylvania county, even Philadelphia. In 2013, there were 28 domestic-violence related deaths in Allegheny County, representing nearly one-fifth of such fatalities statewide, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“Some conclude that PFAs are useless, that they’re just a piece of paper,” says Spenser Baca, a third-year student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who represented Maureen Karr at a PFA hearing hours before she was killed. “But PFAs help the majority of clients.”

In December, after 14 years of marriage, Maureen Karr told her husband she wanted a divorce. According to her PFA order, James Karr flipped out: he broke her stuff, slashed her car tires and threatened to set fire to their home in Duquesne. Ms. Karr took refuge at a neighbor’s house and called police. James Karr was arrested, briefly incarcerated and charged with public intoxication.

Charges of harassment and terroristic threats would have served Ms. Karr better. James Karr’s bond conditions did not even include a restraining order.

So, on Dec. 15, Maureen Karr obtained the temporary order that evicted her husband from their home and prohibited all contact. “He was threatening to set the house on fire,” Maureen hand-wrote in the PFA petition.

Similarly, last September, Nancy Bour of Ross Township wrote on a PFA petition against her husband: “Threatened to burn the house down if I try to get divorce.” The next day, according to police, Thomas Bour poured gasoline on their house and set it ablaze. Thomas Bour faces trial next month on multiple felony charges of arson and risking catastrophe.

“Defendants always make threats,” says Mr. Baca. “It’s surreal when they make true on their threats.”

On Dec. 29, Maureen and James Karr appeared separately on the third floor of family court Downtown. Ms. Karr sought a final PFA order lasting three years — the maximum allowed under Pennsylvania law. But a hearing never occurred, as the defendant suddenly dropped to the floor and convulsed violently. Although James Karr receives disability benefits based on a seizure disorder, Mr. Baca suspects he faked a seizure to avoid the hearing. The parties left the courthouse without even seeing a judge.

In Allegheny County, court administrators estimate that only 5 percent of PFA cases ever go before a judge for a final hearing. Attorneys frequently work out agreements and draft court orders signed by the parties. An administrator will stamp a judge’s signature on them, but there is no direct judicial involvement whatsoever in the vast majority of cases.

Other counties surrounding Pittsburgh handle PFA cases differently. For instance, Westmoreland County judges insist that all parties appear before a judge regardless of how the case is resolved. It’s impossible to know if a judge’s finger-wagging lecture or threat of grave consequences for another infraction would have saved Maureen Karr’s life, but it might have. Allegheny County’s practice of letting administrators stamp court orders must stop.

Moreover, to promote consistency, Allegheny County should have specialized judges with extensive domestic-violence training to handle all PFA hearings. That’s how PFA cases are handled in Philadelphia County, which saw its number of domestic-violence fatalities drop by 33 percent last year.

This is also how things are done across the street in criminal court, where just two judges oversee all of Allegheny County’s domestic-violence cases. But for PFA hearings, 17 family court judges and three senior judges take turns, ensuring an egregious lack of consistency in court rulings.

On Dec. 30, just hours after appearing in court, James Karr showed up at the couple’s red-brick house set on an orange-brick street. The temporary PFA order remained in place, but, according to police, James Karr went in, slammed his wife’s head against a wall, knocking her unconscious, then tied her wrists with floral wire used for making Christmas wreaths, doused her with her favorite Smirnoff vanilla-flavored vodka and lit a match.

Maureen Karr died from smoke inhalation and carbon-monoxide poisoning. James Karr, a South Park native, has been charged with criminal homicide and aggravated arson. The Allegheny County district attorney’s office plans to argue for the death penalty.

It is impossible to know if Maureen Karr’s death might have been prevented. But immediate action should be taken to curb the number of domestic-violence fatalities in Allegheny County. Increased involvement at PFA hearings by judges with advanced training in domestic-violence cases, and the tougher rulings that likely would result, could make the difference.