CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Petito family lobbies for ‘lethality assessment’ law in Utah

Jan 31, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: Feb 1, 2023, 1:16 pm

Utah state senators voted unanimously Monday in favor of a proposal from Republican Todd Weiler tha...

Nicole Schmidt, mother of Gabby Petito, wipes away a tear during a press conference for SB117, a bill advocating for domestic violence protections, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (Ryan Sun/The Deseret News via AP)

(Ryan Sun/The Deseret News via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When officers pulled over a van for speeding outside of Arches National Park in August 2021, they found a visibly distraught young couple in an emotional fight. Gabby Petito, 22, and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, 23, were driving across the United States, and upon observing the couple, police officers in Moab, Utah, decided to separate them for a night rather than issue a domestic violence citation or investigate further.

That decision proved fateful when, about a month later, Petito’s body was found strangled on the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Laundrie, the only individual ever identified as a person of interest, was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after returning alone to his parents’ home in Florida.

The case captured international attention, sparking discussions about both dating violence and how white women like Petito receive disproportionate media coverage compared to other missing people.

Less than two years later, with civil litigation still pending, lawmakers in Utah are advancing legislation to strengthen how police investigate suspected intimate partner violence like the kind now believed to have led to Petito’s death.

Utah state senators voted unanimously Monday in favor of a proposal from Republican Todd Weiler that would require law enforcement throughout Utah to ask a series of 11 questions in situations where they suspect intimate partner violence.

The “Lethality Assessment Protocol” on which Utah’s proposal is based was first piloted in Maryland two decades ago. Roughly half of law enforcement departments in Utah currently use the assessment protocol, yet as of now there is no statewide mandate.

“If it had been used, I believe she’d still be here today,” Joe Petito, Gabby’s father, said at a press conference after the vote in Salt Lake City.

Though police officers regularly ask questions when they have probable cause to believe crimes like domestic violence are being committed, those in the assessment are designed to screen for risk and are based on statistical data that draws correlations between certain behaviors and danger to potential victims’ lives, Weiler said. They include questions about prior threats, access to firearms and a history of behavior such as choking, jealousy or spying.

Utah lawmakers said the learning about the correlation between choking and later death was particularly striking in light of a murder-suicide in Enoch, Utah, earlier this month, where a father killed his wife, five children and mother-in-law several years after one of his daughters told officers conducting a child abuse investigation that he had once choked her.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, whose cousin was shot and killed by her ex-husband last year, said 22% of homicides in Utah were intimate partner-related and that the majority of suspects had prior interaction with law enforcement.

“With this bill, we are trying to very narrowly target the biggest problem we have right now in the state with intimate partner violence,” she said. “That’s to prevent intimate partner homicide.”

The Senate bill also includes provisions to create a law enforcement database for responses to the lethality screenings so officers can access information on prior lethality assessments conducted by any department statewide to better understand and protect victims. Weiler said the database wouldn’t be publicly accessible to ensure it didn’t violate the due process of people investigated yet not convicted of any crimes.

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Petito family lobbies for ‘lethality assessment’ law in Utah