Sitting next to Utah lawmakers, the parents of the late Gabby Petito spoke in support of a bill gaining traction in the Legislature that they say could have helped their daughter escape her abusive and ultimately fatal relationship.
“Had this lethality assessment, which I immersed myself in over the last few weeks, been used ... I believe she would still be here today,” said Nichole Schmidt, Gabby’s mother, during a news conference at the Utah Capitol, shortly after the Senate unanimously passed a law that would change the way law enforcement interacts with victims of intimate partner violence.
Sen. Todd Weiler’s bill, Domestic Violence Amendments, would require all Utah law enforcement officers to conduct a lethality assessment when responding to intimate partner violence calls. It would standardize the process, creating a private, statewide database of completed assessments under the Utah Department of Public Safety that police agencies could access.
Weiler, a Woods Cross Republican, likened it to how police check for warrants when conducting a traffic stop.
“But there is not a commensurate database for domestic violence,” he said on the Senate floor Monday.
Weiler, Schmidt and Gabby’s father, Joe Petito, were joined by Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and her family, who over the summer lost a family member to intimate partner violence. On Aug. 17, 2022, Amanda “Mandy” Mayne, Henderson’s cousin, was murdered by her ex-husband before he turned the gun on himself. Her death came after years of threats and harassment, and her family says she was found with a domestic violence pamphlet in her pocket.
Henderson and her family have since become staunch advocates for implementing lethality assessments across the state. Roughly half of Utah’s law enforcement agencies conduct the assessment, although Salt Lake police, who were investigating Mayne’s case at the time of her death, do not.
A lethality assessment takes about two minutes to complete, says Weiler, and if the bill passes would require a responding officer to ask:
- If the aggressor has ever used a weapon against the victim or threatened the victim with a weapon.
- If the aggressor has ever threatened to kill the victim or the victim’s children.
- If the victim believes the aggressor will try to kill the victim.
- If the aggressor has a gun or could easily get a gun.
- If the aggressor has ever tried to choke the victim.
- If the aggressor is violently or constantly jealous, or controls most of the daily activities of the victim.
- If the victim left or separated from the aggressor after they were living together or married.
- If the aggressor is unemployed.
- If the aggressor has ever attempted suicide, to the best of the victim’s knowledge.
- If the victim has a child that the aggressor believes is not the aggressor’s biological child.
- If the aggressor follows or spies on the victim, or leaves threatening messages for the victim.
The bill also allocates $1.7 million to fund domestic violence victim services.
“It’s really unprecedented,” said Jen Campbell, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, who in her 15 years of working with victims has never seen this much money appropriated during a legislative session.
“I know those doing this work are watching and are grateful for the attention,” she said. “The idea of really enhancing our cooperation and access to services is what we hoped and wanted for survivors in this state.”
In Utah, roughly 22% of all homicides each year are related to intimate partner violence. Of those, about 60% are committed by someone who had a prior interaction with police, according to Henderson.
“With this bill, we are trying to very narrowly target the biggest problem we have right now with intimate partner violence, and that is to prevent intimate partner homicide,” said Henderson.
Joe Petito stressed that implementing the lethality assessment is an important beginning to more, much-needed reforms surrounding domestic violence.
“It’s not just about the lethality assessment protocol bill, all right? The questions are only the first step in the way of helping these individuals,” he said.
“(Police officers) need to be trained on how to work with a victim who’s been traumatized,” added Schmidt, Gabby Petito’s mother, after the news conference. “I really feel like if Gabby was approached in a certain way, I do believe ... she would still be here.”
Schmidt and Joe Petito recently filed a lawsuit against the Moab Police Department, who responded to a domestic violence call involving Gabby and her fiancé and eventual murderer, Brian Laundrie, in August 2021. The family’s lawyers say officers could have prevented her death if they had done more to intervene, and are seeking $50 million in damages.
Shortly before the news conference, the Senate voted unanimously to approve SB117. It now goes to the House for consideration.
The families of Gabby Petito and Mandy Mayne joined Weiler on the Senate floor for the vote on the legislation. Senators bowed their heads and recognized both women in a moment of silence.
“Although we can’t bring Gabby back and we can’t bring Mandy back, it seems like we’ve got a problem,” Weiler said on the floor, adding there were “a lot of warning signs, a lot of red flags there that we didn’t catch.”
“I’m not here to blame anyone,” he said, but added state officials have been looking at the cases and asking what Utah could do better.
“Everyone seems to believe that the two things we’re addressing in SB117 would help,” Weiler said. “Again, it’s not going to help Mandy or Gabby, but we’re trying to help future victims. And hopefully we won’t learn their names if they stay alive.”
Numerous times, as Weiler described Mayne’s murder at the hands of her former husband, his voice strained with emotion.
Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, noted threats leading up to Mayne’s murder spanned several Utah cities and “there was no communication.”
“We need to do whatever we can do in this state so our law enforcement agencies can do their job well and we can protect our citizens,” Kwan said.