On Saturday, December 7th, Lower Paxton Township police responded to a domestic abuse situation between a Harrisburg couple. According to a report in PennLive, the victim was identified as Heather Marie Bechtel, age 32, who was strangled to death allegedly by her ex-boyfriend James Earl Greer, Jr. who was charged with her homicide. Bechtel was killed in the apartment she used to share with Greer in the 4000 block of Rawleigh Street. Her two daughters were inside the apartment when Bechtel was killed. Apparently, Lower Paxton Police were familiar with Greer and Bechtel having responded there previously to calls for domestic violence problems. This time the situation was fatal.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Bechtel's murder is a reminder that intimate partner violence is not confined to one month out of the year. Although the details surrounding the situation between Greer and Bechtel's relationship were not reported in the news, it was reported that they no longer resided together in the same house, they shared at least one child together, and there was a history of police involvement for domestic violence. It would appear that Bechtel had enough and wanted out of the relationship with Greer. Once a person is arrested in Pennsylvania for domestic violence, it is up to the prosecutor to decide if there is enough evidence to charge the suspect or to release them. While some states may allow the victim to request to drop charges against the plaintiff, Pennsylvania courts will not process a nolle prosequi from a victim request.
If the police responded in the past to domestic disturbances between Bechtel and Greer, it is likely that he would have at the very least have been arrested for battering, assault, and/or domestic violence. Whether or not he was charged with a crime or not is up to the prosecutor's discretion. The reality of the situation is that the courts pursue cases where there is sufficient evidence, and they think they can win. It is not uncommon for a victim to be a no-show to testify in court even if they were the person to call the police to report the violence. In the months that pass between the arrest and the court date, the aggressor has time to work on the victim to get them to want to see the charges dropped. There are many reasons why victims continue to stay with their abusers such as being intimidated and afraid of their partner, not wanting to see their children's parent incarcerated, shame, family influence, cultural values, financial isolation, and many other reasons.
In some cases, reporting a domestic violence situation can even lead to eviction. Lakisha Briggs from Norristown, PA was told by the responding police officer that since this was her third time reporting domestic violence that he was going to call her landlord to have her evicted. Because there were three calls to police within a four-month period, Briggs could be evicted for violating the "disorderly behavior" ordinance. Cities and towns across the United States enacted nuisance-type ordinances as a way to decrease crime with the greatest penalties typically against people who rent. As aggravating as it may be for police officers to respond to the same houses repeatedly for the same domestic disputes with the same people, victims need to feel encouraged and supported to leave their abuser.
Organizations such as the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV) supports public awareness, education, and prevention of domestic violence by protecting them from abuse, criminal justice intervention, crisis and safety planning. The PCADV reported that in 2012 there were 67 victims killed by a current or former intimate partner of which 85% were female and 15% were male. Preventing intimate partner violence begins with educating people what is and what is not acceptable behavior between romantic partners. Because not all abuse is physical, some victims may not believe they are being abused by their spouse or partner since they are not being hit. There are certain signs and symptoms to know if a person is an abusive relationship and there are places to go get help to leave the abuser before the situation takes a tragic turn.
One of the most important things to understand is that once a person makes the decision to leave their abuser, it is important to make sure that happens safely. It is recommended that the person who is leaving the relationship develops a safety plan which includes preparing for emergencies and coming up with an escape plan. The most important thing is to not underestimate the lengths the abuser may go to keep the victim from leaving. There was no information to indicate if Bechtel had a safety plan or not. Just the same, her tragic death is a lesson to others to speak up before they become victims of domestic violence to let their romantic partner know that they demand to be treated with respect which does not include any form of abuse. In addition, prevention efforts should also concentrate on helping people who abused others what a healthy relationship looks like and teach new ways to release their emotions without resorting to violence, threats, or intimidation.