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High-profile Kentucky murder of Amanda Ross led to new domestic violence law. It’s not being used.

Diana Ross, right, sat in front of her daughter’s portrait at Amanda Ross’s funeral. Steve Nunn pleaded guilty to her murder. | Courtesy Lexington Herald-Leader

By Jack Brammer | Lexington Herald-Leader

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2009, former state Rep. Steve Nunn shot and killed his ex-fiance, Amanda Ross, in the parking lot outside Opera House Square in downtown Lexington.

The shooting garnered national headlines and sparked a cry for more legislation to end domestic violence.

The 2010 Kentucky General Assembly responded. At the urging of the victim’s mother, Diana Ross, state lawmakers approved a measure — called Amanda’s Law — that allowed judges to expand the use of global positioning system tracking systems that alert victims when their past attackers get too close.

Years later, the law is seldom used.

The GPS monitoring portion of Amanda’s Law has been implemented in only two court cases in Kentucky in the last three years, one in Boone County in 2015 and the other in Daviess County in 2017, according to records from the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“That’s disappointing,” Diana Ross said in a recent interview. “I was in hopes that it would be used much more than that. I really don’t know why it’s not being used more. Maybe more publicity about it would motivate courts to consider it.”

Amanda Ross

Amanda Ross, 29, had sought a protective order against Nunn, then 56, for domestic violence in February 2009. He continued stalking her for months before murdering her.

Judges seem reluctant to use the law because guidelines on when it’s appropriate are squishy, said Greg Stumbo, an attorney who sponsored the legislation when he was House Speaker.

“Many seem concerned that they slap the monitoring on one perpetrator and not another, since it’s at their discretion and they miss the wrong person,” he said. “It sounds like more training is needed on this law, which I always thought and still do think definitely can be a tool to deter domestic violence.”

Stumbo’s initial idea was to pass a law that allows judges to order people with a protective order against them because of alleged domestic violence to wear GPS devices after the judge heard from the victim and the accused. A protective order is designed to stop violence and abuse by placing restrictions on the alleged offender.

But a majority of legislators had a problem with that after some judges questioned the constitutionality of ordering electronic monitoring of someone not charged with a crime.

They eventually settled on a law that allows a judge to require those who commit a “substantial violation” of a protective order — stalking, burglary or kidnapping, for example — to wear a tracking device. The units send an alarm to both the victim and police if the person enters areas restricted by the protective order.

The law left it up to individual counties to administer the monitoring devices, the cost of which offenders must pay. It’s a felony to take the device off or tamper with it.

Darlene Thomas, executive director of GreenHouse17, formerly known as Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program in Lexington, said the problem with Amanda’s Law is that it requires a substantial violation before a GPS bracelet can be ordered.

She said judges often jail the offenders when there is a substantial violation of a protective order instead of putting electronic monitors on them. “This lends to the law being under utilized,” Thomas said.

She also said there is “a lack of technological consistency and availability, and concern about the costs to the aggressor.”

Fayette Family Court Judge Kathy Stein said she considers GPS monitoring “a tool for the more difficult cases” and said she wants to learn more about the mechanics of the system.

Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt, whose office works with victims of domestic violence, said she is not surprised that only two courts have used the law. She is trying to obtain federal dollars to promote “Amanda’s Law.”

“With grant funds, I would like to see electronic monitoring improve by educating the courts and law enforcement officials more about it and providing the technology,” she said.

If used properly, the law has the potential to prevent deaths from domestic violence, said Gretchen Hunt, who heads the Office of Victims Advocacy for state Attorney General Andy Beshear.

Her office’s 2018 policy manual on domestic violence says one in three Kentucky women will experience domestic violence in her life and 45 percent of female homicide victims and 4.9 percent of male homicide victims in the U.S. last year were murdered by an intimate partner.

Kentucky is one of 23 states that have some kind of law or are in the process of making a law that allows GPS monitoring of domestic violence offenders, according to the National Council on State Legislatures.

Edna Erez, professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Illinois is “successfully using” its GPS law enacted in 2008, which allows courts to order abusers to wear monitoring devices as a condition of bail when restraining orders have been violated.

“I wouldn’t say GPS monitoring laws don’t work,” she said. “But they do have to be implemented properly.”

George Drake, who operates a monitoring company in New Mexico, said he is surprised that Kentucky judges are not using the tracking in domestic violence cases.

It is “a very good deterrent tool as long as it is never used to guarantee that the victim will be protected,” he said.

Drake said his guess is that many Kentucky judges don’t want to trust electronic monitoring more than putting serious offenders in jail.

The state legislature may need to amend “Amanda’s Law” to give judges more direction on when to use it, said Marcia Roth, director of the Mary Byron Project in Louisville, which works to end domestic violence.

“We all hoped the law would be widely used but that’s just not the case,” she said. “There’s much outrage to fight it when there’s a well-publicized murder, but domestic violence is going on all the time and needs our constant attention to come up with ways to fight it.”

Diana Ross said she believes her daughter still would be alive if Nunn had been tracked electronically. Amanda Ross never would have left her apartment that morning to go to work if she had been warned Nunn was in the area, her mother said.

“She would have lived. Now all of this is like a black cloud that’s over you,” she said. “It never goes away.”

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