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Femicides in Puerto Rico force courts to confront 'serious problem' of gender violence

A new probe is shining a light into how and why Puerto Rican courts failed to protect Andrea Ruiz from her abusive ex-boyfriend amid a rise in the gender-based killings of women.
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Andrea Ruiz, 35, pleaded for the arrest of her ex-boyfriend this spring after a court declined to issue a protection order against him. A month later, the man confessed to killing Ruiz, police said.Facebook / via Telemundo

During a virtual court hearing in March before a judge in Puerto Rico, Andrea Ruiz testified about her ex-boyfriend's pattern of emotional abuse and persecution, detailing how the man stalked her, harassed her and threatened to post intimate photos of her on social media.

During the hearing, the frightened 35-year-old woman filed a complaint against Miguel Ocasio, 40, under Puerto Rico’s domestic violence intervention and prevention law, pleading for the man’s arrest after courts denied her petition for a restraining order against him.

At the time, the judge said she found “no cause” to arrest Ocasio. A month later, police said Ocasio confessed to killing Ruiz after her burned body was found on the side of a road on April 28. Ocasio died by suicide in prison this month after being charged with first-degree murder and destruction of evidence.

A new investigation is attempting to shine a light on how Puerto Rican courts failed to protect Ruiz, one of more than 81 women who have been victims of femicides on the island since last year, according to the civil rights coalition Observatorio de Equidad de Género.

"That is a number greater than countries that have 20 times our population. So, of course, we have to do more," Maite Oronoz, the presiding judge of Puerto Rico's Supreme Court, said Thursday in Spanish at a news conference announcing the investigation's preliminary findings.

The task force that conducted the investigation was charged with reviewing the "judicial, administrative and operational processes related to cases of gender-based violence." The Supreme Court created the task force in May after seven femicides in April made it the deadliest month for women so far this year.

Protesters in front of the Governor's residence demand justice for Keishla Rodr?guez and Andrea Ruiz in San Juan, Puerto Rico in May 2021.Alejandro Granadillo / NurPhoto via Getty Images

According to the report, which was emailed to NBC News, courts were not involved in 91.3 percent of the gender-based violence cases that culminated in a femicide. For Oronoz, that is one of the inquiry's most alarming findings.

"People are not going to the courts for help," Oronoz said, adding that further analysis is needed to determine if victims had sought help through the police, community groups or elsewhere. "The response of the judiciary has to be much better."

"If, in Puerto Rico, women and men are dying from gender violence, we have a serious problem," she added. "That is why the judiciary constantly evaluates itself ... to do better."

Part of the report focuses on an analysis of seven femicides in which courts got involved, including Ruiz's case. Oronoz said that while the report does not explicitly identify the victims by name, one can "intuitively" recognize some of them based on how the circumstances around the cases are outlined in the report.

"The purpose of the report is not to look into how each judge managed each case, but to give us the tools to know which practices are not working," Oronoz said.

Judges need to better spot red flags

Of the 12,302 restraining order applications received between March 16, 2020 and June 30, 2021, at least 9,488 were granted provisionally. Only 4,198 of these temporary orders (44 percent) were later issued as final restraining orders.

A total of 10 restraining orders were requested in the seven cases analyzed by the task force. Courts granted nine of them. The circumstances of the cases suggest that Ruiz was the only petitioner whose protection order was denied.

Criminal proceedings took place in four of the seven cases analyzed in the report. Out of these, "there was only one determination of no cause for arrest and in the others cause was determined," the report reads. The facts of that case are consistent with Ruiz's.

While the 110-page report doesn't scrutinize specific judges over their handling of certain cases, the task force reported that the judges involved in all seven cases did a poor job of assessing the presence of "lethality indicators" such as a previous history of abuse, increased severity of abuse over time, or accessibility to weapons in the testimonies of the women filing for restraining orders or criminal complaints.

Stalking was the most common "lethality indicator" present in the testimonies of the victims or those petitioning for a protection order, the task force said in the report.

In these cases, the judges did not embrace the use of guidelines included in the "Manual of Protection Orders in Situations of Domestic Violence." Such practices are aimed at guiding the parties involved about "the processes of the hearing, on the assessment of lethality, on the seriousness of domestic violence cases," the report states.

One of the report's seven main recommendations calls on the court system to provide specific instructions on how judges should use the protection orders manual, especially when evaluating risk factors to measure or anticipate the potential danger a victim is facing — and craft solutions that result in the proper enforcement of the final order.

"The task force views this manual as a good resource that judges should continuously be encouraged to use. Even though it is considered a good resource, it is now being updated since the laws on domestic violence have changed," Oronoz told NBC News in Spanish after the news conference.

An analysis of court hearing recordings found that in four cases "the judges who presided over them were respectful, empathetic, patient, and actively participated in the hearing to answer or clarify any questions asked."

But even in those cases, the parties didn't receive any guidance after the issuance of a protection order outlining the consequences of violating the order as well as what was prohibited under the order — and pointing out the need for the victim or petitioner to always carry the order with them.

The task force proposed to submit a final report with recommendations on Jan. 31, 2022.

In the meantime, some of the recommendations around improving virtual court hearings are being adopted by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, Oronoz said. But to embrace additional recommendations — some of which focus on addressing "excess hours of work resulting in notable fatigue" for many judges — Oronoz said they either need more time or more information to make those decisions.

"For me, this is still a work in progress," Oronoz said. "I see the report we released today as a document that remains alive."

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