Amie Harwick's death prompts 'Justice 4 Amie' petition demanding domestic violence reform

Elise Solé
·6 min read

A petition by the friend of slain Hollywood therapist Amie Harwick argues that a civil restraining order against Harwick’s ex-boyfriend — the man charged with her murder — had expired, leaving her vulnerable to the deadly attack.

Diana Arias wrote the Change.org petition “Justice 4 Amie - Domestic Violence Laws Updated” after the death of Harwick, 38, a marriage and family therapist who was once engaged to comedian Drew Carey. On Feb. 15, police discovered Harwick lying under a third-floor balcony of her Hollywood Hills home. Harwick died later at the hospital. Public Information Officer Sarah Ardalani of the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s office told Yahoo Entertainment that Harwick died of blunt force injuries to the head and torso when she “fell from a balcony after altercation” and that there was “evidence of manual strangulation.”

Harwick’s ex-boyfriend Gareth Pursehouse, 41, was arrested last week and, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, was charged with “one count each of murder and first-degree residential burglary with the special circumstance allegation of lying in wait.” The charges make Pursehouse eligible for the death penalty or life in prison.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Harwick filed for a temporary civil restraining order against Pursehouse in 2011, alleging physical abuse. However, the order was reportedly dismissed when Harwick “apparently” didn’t attend a subsequent hearing.

Less than a year later, Harwick sought another temporary order against Pursehouse, and the presiding judge granted her Domestic Violence Restraining Order request after a hearing on April 12, 2012.

Arias’s petition — with more than 92,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, including Carey’s — chiefly demands to eliminate expiration dates on civil restraining orders (CROs) unless requested by the victim. “People shouldn't have to die to make changes,” read the petition. “If Amie's murder can save countless other lives like she was doing when she was alive then it makes this pain of her death not in vain.”

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On Monday, Rep. Adam Schiff wrote on Facebook of the case, “Protective orders need to be easier to obtain and renew, and their enforcement — from police to prosecutor — must be much more highly prioritized to be effective. I have met with police, the city attorney and district attorney to advocate for victims on this issue, and I am going to continue to pursue the matter until all victims are protected. In Congress, we can start by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act which was passed by the House last year and remains held up by opposition in the Senate.”

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Jane K. Stoever, a clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that “to issue a civil restraining order for domestic violence,” two elements must be present. “The victim needs to prove a requisite relationship with their abuser, such as having dated, lived together or cohabitated, and that the abuse occurred under their state’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act,” she says. (Yahoo Lifestyle was unable to view the actual restraining order in this case, but Stoever says it was likely civil; in California, she explains, orders are entered through the criminal justice system at the request of the District Attorney when criminal charges are pending).

However, CROs have varying expiration dates — anywhere from one to five years — depending on the state from which they’re issued. In California, where Harwick lived, they can remain in effect for five years with the option of renewal for another five years or a lifetime, says Stoever, adding, “Judges may assume that danger ceases once the restraining order takes effect, but evidence of the recurrent nature of intimate partner violence demonstrates the importance of providing judicial protection over time.”

Injunctions or restraining orders for intellectual property, corporations, real property and tax are often granted permanently to protect people and corporations from “irreparable harm,” she adds. She explains the differential treatment of domestic violence protections: “The government response to domestic violence evolved from husbands having a right of chastisement and correction — which permitted abuse as long as the husband did not kill or maim his wife — to the family privacy theory, in which formal and informal immunities allowed marital violence to persist, to the relatively recent creation of laws prohibiting intimate partner abuse and providing for protection from abuse.”

Renewing the civil restraining order is a big deal — the respondent must be hand-served court documents by a person over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case. Then, both the accuser and the alleged abuser attend a court hearing to provide testimony, evidence and witnesses, and to cross-examine each other. If the protected person doesn’t attend, the case is typically dismissed.

“There are multiple reasons why a survivor may not seek to renew an expiring restraining order,” says Stoever. “If the parties did not have children in common and there has not been recent contact from the respondent, it may feel dangerous or unnecessary to reengage the respondent by filing a legal action and bringing this person back to court.” Still, restraining orders that are lengthier, detailed and specific lead to better safety outcomes, she adds.

It’s why Arias suggests that domestic violence survivors have the option to attend court hearings via live-stream with the camera aimed at the judge, and not the accused, pointing to the risk of re-traumatization by being inside the courtroom and hallways with abusers. Laura Dugan, professor and associate chair in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, calls the suggestion “awesome.”

“It’s very frightening for a person to testify against an abuser in person,” Dugan tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s intimidating, and there is a real fear of retribution.” For this reason, she says, some states have “no drop” policies that allow a case to continue, even if the accuser has changed his or her mind.

Arias is consulting with domestic violence survivors on other ideas, such as creating a national registry for those issued CROs, providing free access to attorneys so accusers don’t shoulder the legal fees of getting protection, and more.

“Amie was passionate in the field of mental health. She was very motivated and always willing to help in any way she could,” Arias tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “She was always kind and driven. She always made you feel comfortable and heard. If this was the other way around, Amie would do this for anyone of us.”

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