Are California police missing domestic violence murders? New bill would let families review cases

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

By Ryan Sabalow for CalMatters

Joanna Lewis’s family never believed she took her own life.

In 2011, investigators found her hanging from a bath robe’s belt inside a closet. The Solano County Cororner’s Office declared her death a suicide. But Lewis, 36, had previously sought restraining orders against her husband, Vacaville pastor Mark Lewis, accusing him of domestic violence.

Four years after her death, Mark Lewis was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading no contest to hiring three people to throw a molotov cocktail through the window of his ex-girlfriend’s Vacaville house. He had started dating that woman within days of his wife’s death, she told ABC News.

Lewis has never faced charges in Joanna Lewis’ death, although deputies have opened the case twice. This week, a Solano County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson told CalMatters that the agency has reopened the investigation into Joanna Lewis’s death for a third time. 

The review comes as California lawmakers consider a bill that would give the extended families of domestic violence victims the right to request additional scrutiny of death investigations they deem suspicious as well as provide additional training for law enforcement to spot cover-ups of domestic violence murders. Its supporters are citing Joanna Lewis’s death as they advocate for the bill.

Senate Bill 989’s lead author is Sen. Angelique Ashby, a former Sacramento city councilmember who knows Lewis’s brother, Sacramento Fire Capt. Joseph Hunter. He testified beside Ashby last week before the Senate Public Safety Committee and again on Tuesday before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. The bill passed both committees unanimously.

As he testified, he referred to his sister by her maiden name, which her family has used since her death

“This bill will bring justice to Joanna Hunter and so many other victims like her,” Hunter told lawmakers.

The bill comes amid international calls for police to take a dead woman’s history with a domestic abuser into account before declaring her death a suicide or an accident, citing examples of abusers covering up their crimes. Law enforcement organizations, however, argue that their investigators are already trained to spot death scenes that are staged to not look like a murder. 

In an interview with CalMatters Tuesday, Ashby said there could be as many as 800 to 1,200  “hidden homicides” in the U.S. each year, citing estimates from the bill’s sponsor, Alliance for HOPE International, an advocacy group for victims of domestic violence. Ashby said that too often, the victim’s abuser is their spouse who has the ability to block family members from pushing investigators to dig deeper, something the family alleges happened after Joanna Lewis’s death.

“If a firefighter brother can’t get a secondary autopsy,” Ashby said, “we clearly need a legal change.”

Lewis is no longer listed as a state prison inmate. CalMatters’ attempted to reach him through phone numbers and an email address found in public records. The numbers were disconnected, and the email account was disabled. Lewis’ attorney from his 2015 criminal case wasn’t listed on the Solano County Superior Court’s online case search. 

The Solano County officials have conducted at least two other reviews of the case, once in 2014 and again in 2019, a sheriff’s spokesman told CalMatters. Lewis has not been charged with a crime related to his wife’s 2011 death. Solano County court records show that he was convicted by plea agreement of felony domestic violence in 1997. The records don’t say who his victim was. 

Who would get domestic violence records?

Ashby’s bill would give parents, siblings or the domestic violence victim’s children the right to obtain photos taken during a coroner’s investigation into a death declared a suicide, so that they can have them for an independent review of the case. 

Autopsy reports are generally public records, but photographs taken during a death investigation can only be given out to a victim’s “legal heir or their representative in connection with a potential or pending civil action relating to the decedent’s death,” according to the bill’s analysis. 

“Right now, only an heir – a legal heir – has access to those records,” Casey Gwinn, the president of Alliance for HOPE International, told lawmakers. “And in the cases of domestic violence homicide, the legal heir may actually be the killer. We believe family members should have the same access to records.” 

California’s District Attorneys Association supports Ashby’s bill, which has Sen. Susan Rubio, a Democrat from West Covina, as a coauthor. Before becoming a senator, Rubio accused her then-husband, Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, of domestic violence in 2016, as he was serving his final term. He denied the allegations. 

California police oppose death records bill

But some law enforcement groups argue the training and other investigative requirements under Rubio’s and Ashby’s bill are redundant. Investigators, they say, are already trained to look for signs of hidden foul play at what’s known as an “unattended death,” when someone dies outside of a medical setting.

“It has been our experience that these staged crimes are quickly recognized by our investigators out in the field due to our current policies and procedures that we have in place,” Lt. Julio De Leon of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office told the judiciary committee on Tuesday. “And we investigate all unattended deaths out in the field. All of them.”

The bill also gives family members the right to request another law enforcement agency to review a death investigation officially deemed a suicide or an accident if there is a documented history of domestic violence. If the local cops won’t take up the review, the family may seek a review of the case from a federally-authorized “public or private nonprofit agency” that trains law enforcement on domestic violence investigations, according to the bill analysis

De Leon said the bill doesn’t say which agency would pay for the additional review or provide a means to cover the costs. 

“Why should residents of a particular city fund and pay and dedicate officers to investigate a crime that was potentially committed outside of their jurisdiction?” he asked.

Ashby brushed off concerns over unintended costs, saying nonprofit domestic violence organizations are willing to conduct death investigation reviews for families for free. 

“The members of Joanna Hunter’s family would disagree that more cannot be done to protect families,” she said. “They would be joined by thousands of other families whose loved ones did not receive justice in death.”

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