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Kentucky Supreme Court Announces Appellate Standard of Review for Domestic Abuse Exemption to Violent Offender Parole Eligibility

The Supreme Court of Kentucky clarified the meaning of the statute that allows a defendant to be eligible for parole after serving 20% of their sentence despite committing a violent crime resulting in death.

Michael Wayne Crowe rented a hotel room with his wife Felicia Walker on May 2, 2014. The couple lived with Crowe’s mother and wanted to “get away for a couple of days.” After witnessing suspicious activity, the hotel manager entered the hotel room the next day and found Walker deceased.

Crowe was tracked down on May 6 in a wooded area near where his car was abandoned. He said the couple had a fight, and when he awoke the next morning, Walker was dead. He later admitted to accidentally smothering her while attempting to stop her from biting him.

Crowe pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the first degree, a Class B Felony, in exchange for a recommendation from the Commonwealth that he receive a sentence of 15 years in prison.

Normally, offenders who are sentenced to two to 39 years in prison become eligible for parole after serving 20% of their sentence. 501 KAR 1:030 § 3(c). However, certain violent offenders, including a defendant convicted of a Class B Felony involving the death of a victim, must serve 85% before becoming eligible for parole. KRS 439.3401(1).

After pleading guilty but before sentencing, Crowe filed a motion requesting to be classified as a victim of domestic violence. As a victim of domestic violence, he would be exempted from the 85% rule and be required to serve the standard 20% of his sentence in order to become eligible for release on parole. KRS 439.3401(5).

Despite hearing extensive testimony from Crowe’s family and the detective investigating the killing (who documented injuries Walker inflicted upon Crowe), the district court denied Crowe’s motion. The court found “the smothering of Walker did not occur as the result of the domestic violence” but rather that “Crowe killed Walker because of her admission to him during the argument that she had been having an affair.”

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s finding, and the Kentucky Supreme Court granted review of the Commonwealth’s appeal.

The issue before the Court was the correct standard of appellate review regarding a trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to (1) whether entitlement to the victim of domestic violence exemption for parole eligibility is a factual finding reviewed for clear error and (2) whether the abuse occurred in connection with the offenses committed by defendant is a mixed question of law and fact subject to de novo review.

The Court held that “a two-part review akin to that used in the review of a trial court’s decision on a suppression motion is the most appropriate standard” for appellate courts to use. The trial court’s determination of whether the defendant is a victim of domestic violence should be reviewed for clear error, the Court announced, adding that if the court’s determination on this first prong is “supported by substantial evidence, those factual findings shall be deemed conclusive.” As to the second prong of whether the abuse occurred “with regard to the offenses,” the Court announced it “is a mixed question of law and fact” and thus reviewed de novo.

Turning to the present case, the Court ruled that the trial court did not err in concluding that Crowe was a victim of domestic violence since it was supported by substantial evidence. Crowe’s family all testified about an extensive history of domestic violence perpetrated by Walker on Crowe. He admitted to killing Walker during his plea colloquy and explained that he “put a pillow over her mouth to keep her from biting him, as she had bit him on his arms, chest, and back.” The detective documented an open wound near Crowe’s nipple on May 6 where Walker had bit him on May 2.

As to the issue of whether the abuse occurred “with regard to the offenses” for which Crowe was charged, after a de novo review, the Court ruled that the trial court erred in determining that Crowe was not a victim of domestic violence with regard to the manslaughter. The trial court stated that there wasn’t the “required nexus between” the abuse and the smothering of Walker with a pillow. The Court rejected that finding, explaining that “a direct and immediate causal connection between the act of domestic violence and the murder” is not required in order for a defendant to be eligible for the domestic violence exemption under KRS 439.3401(5). The facts presented are “sufficient to satisfy Crowe’s burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he was a victim of domestic violence in regard to the manslaughter of Walker,” the Court concluded.

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Crowe



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