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Groundbreaking domestic violence bill passes Oklahoma House

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Oklahoma State Capitol is seen. (KTUL)

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A bill protecting Oklahomans charged with murder of their abusive domestic partner unanimously passed the Oklahoma House today.

House Bill 1639 limits the punishment for the crime if there's evidence of abuse.

"This bill deals with any person who has had to make a decision on whether or not to save their own life or end the life of another person trying to end their life," Rep. Toni Hasenbeck said on the House floor.

NewsChannel 8 first spoke with Hasenbeck in September 2022 as she was starting to work on this bill. In January, we profiled a series of incarcerated domestic abuse survivors.

Today, advocates for survivors of abuse say this is a big step forward, but they're also disappointed those currently behind bars won't qualify for sentencing relief if this bill is signed into law.

"As someone who was raised in a home with domestic abuse, I really appreciate you putting this bill forward," said Rep. Amanda Swope.

The Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act requires courts to consider whether a person has been physically, sexually, economically, or psychologically abused when sentencing in cases of murder of their intimate partner.

If evidence – protective orders, police reports, or hospital records – validates the abuse, then the bill limits the punishment for the charged offense.

"As Republicans, all we ever wanna do is talk about families," Hasenbeck said. "I don't know of anybody who would want a woman to be punished than is required by the law if she felt like she had to kill a person to save her own life and save the life of her children."

Oklahoma ranks among the top state in the nation for rates of domestic violence and, according to the Oklahoma Department of Health, 49% of women and 40% of men have experienced violence from an intimate partner at least once in their lives.

"A lot of times we’ll see survivors sentenced with life in prison with no prior criminal activity, and so it just makes sense in those cases that we use some discretion when prosecuting crimes that would have long lasting impacts on families in our community," said Tracey Lyall, CEO of Domestic Violence Intervention Services.

DVIS, which is part of the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition, not only advocated for HB 1639, but incarcerated domestic violence survivors.

“It’s a great first step for survivors of domestic violence in Oklahoma, to have some sentencing relief, particularly when survivors have committed a crime most typically out of a survivor need,” Lyall said.

One of the prior versions of the bill would have allowed those already sentenced to apply for relief.

"We always have to, unfortunately, make some compromises," Rep. Cyndi Munson said. "There is a commitment to working those who are in opposition find relief."

"I had to really narrow the scope on this bill," Hasenbeck said. "The more we have these conversations, the more the law will change to be more specific and target this very, very vulnerable population."

Hasenbeck says that includes April Wilkens, who testified that she was raped, threatened with a gun, and handcuffed the night when she killed her ex-fiancé in April 1998.

"I was just constantly, and I mean constantly, afraid for my life and my son's life," Wilkens previously told NewsChannel 8.

Her claim of self-defense was rebuked by a jury, who convicted her of first-degree murder.

Wilkens, as part of a survivor-led movement, shared her story with us from behind bars, determined to make a difference in the lives of other domestic abuse survivors.

HB 1639 now goes to the Senate.

If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic abuse, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE. You may also text the word "Safe" to 207-777. The line is staffed between the hours of 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.


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