CRIME
06/23/2016 04:06 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2016

Man Charged With Murder For Allegedly Driving His Partner To Suicide

Who is responsible when a domestic violence victim ends her life?
Prosecutors say Jessica Haban took her life after years of domestic abuse, and now they want to hold her partner accountable.
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Prosecutors say Jessica Haban took her life after years of domestic abuse, and now they want to hold her partner accountable.

For approximately 10 years, Minnesota authorities say, Jessica Haban was physically and emotionally abused by her partner. Long Vang, 34, allegedly smashed her head into a washing machine, tossed her into the wall by her hair, held a knife to her throat, and in May 2015, punched her in the head with a closed fist, causing a traumatic brain injury.

The head trauma left Haban struggling with dizziness, confusion and nausea. She fell into a depression, and told a social worker that she felt as though Vang had already killed her. While Vang was under court order to stay away from her, she told police, he was continuing to call and text. The abuse, she said, was starting to take a severe toll on her mental health.

Haban was hospitalized on three occasions, but never stayed long. She was afraid of losing custody of her kids -- which, according to a social worker, is what Vang told her would happen if she continued receiving care.

On December 16, 2015, three days after being discharged from the hospital, Haban killed herself at age 28. Earlier this month, in a surprising move, authorities arrested Vang and charged him with murder for allegedly driving his partner to take her own life.

"I believe Mr. Vang’s conduct directly contributed to the death of his partner," Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem said in a press release. "Mr. Vang was clearly aware of the precarious state of his partner’s emotions following her hospitalizations and he continued the relentless contacts until her death."

It’s extremely rare for a person to be charged with causing someone else's suicide. People who die by suicide are typically considered to have intentionally and voluntarily taken their own life. None of the experts contacted for this story had heard of a similar case involving domestic violence. 

However, in the past few years, there have been a few high-profile cases involving children. In 2013, Florida officials charged two girls with felonies for allegedly bullying a 12-year-old girl until she killed herself. And in 2015, a Massachusetts teen was charged with manslaughter for allegedly encouraging her online boyfriend to kill himself.

Vang was charged with a type of murder referred to as "depraved heart murder," which doesn’t require prosecutors to prove an intent to kill. Instead, they must prove that the suspect consciously did something that was very likely to kill, and in doing so, displayed complete disregard for human life -- or, in other words, acted with a depraved mind. (The ancient-sounding charge received renewed attention this year, when the Baltimore police officer who drove the van Freddie Gray rode in before he died was charged with depraved heart murder.)

"In common law, courts and judges decided over time that sometimes people were so reckless, so indifferent to human life, that it was functionally equivalent to intending to kill them," explained Joseph Kennedy, professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  "A modern example would be a guy who rode his high-speed motorboat through a lake crowded with swimmers. Maybe you can’t prove that he was intending to kill someone, but he is so indifferent to the high risk that it is a functional equivalent of intending to kill."

For the prosecution to make a successful case against Vang, Kennedy said, they would need to prove that he consciously disregarded a substantial risk that Haban would kill herself as a result of his conduct.

"If he can prove that, I think the depraved part comes easily," he said. "Domestic violence is antisocial by its very nature."

Experiencing domestic violence significantly increases a person's risk of suicide, according to research.

"Women who make suicide attempts experience higher rates of domestic violence than women who do not, and women who experience domestic violence have higher rates of suicide attempts and ideation than women who have not been victimized by an intimate partner," said Carole Warshaw, director of the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health.

She pointed to a 2012 survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline in which 73 percent of callers reported that their partner deliberately did things to make them feel like they were going crazy or losing their minds.

"It's critical that people be attuned to the ways that perpetrators of domestic violence actively engage in behaviors designed to undermine their partner's sanity," Warshaw said. "They may try to control their access to treatment, coerce them to overdose on drugs, threaten them with involuntary commitment or take actions to sabotage their recovery. The stigma associated with these issues can mean that the perpetrator is seen as more credible than the person they have been abusing for years." 

It's critical that people be attuned to the ways that perpetrators of domestic violence actively engage in behaviors designed to undermine their partner's sanity. Carole Warshaw, National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health

Liz Richards, director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said this was the first case that she was aware of in which an accused domestic abuser faced criminal charges for his partner’s suicide.

“We know that domestic violence, and specifically, domestic violence that involves coercive control and occurs across many years, does have a negative impact on people’s psychological and mental well-being,” she said.

After years of hearing anecdotal reports of domestic violence victims' suicides, members of Richards' organization did some research into the problem. They pulled all the public records of adult women in Minnesota who died by suicide from 2009 to 2011, and cross-referenced them with protective orders and criminal charges of domestic violence.

"Even with extremely limited information, we found that between 7 and 14 percent of those cases had a documented domestic violence record," Richards said. "This is an area that would be nice for someone to look into deeper."

David Rossman, professor of law at Boston University School of Law, said the case against Vang raises complicated legal questions. In many cases of suicide, he said, it would be easy to find someone in an individual's past who had mistreated them when they were vulnerable. But how far back do you go? And how do you prove that it was another person's actions that ultimately caused the suicide?

Rossman also worried about prosecutorial overreach.

"It leaves a lot of power in the hands of the prosecutor to bring a criminal prosecution when there is an awful lot of speculation," he said.

For Haban's family, the charges offer some reassurance that authorities are taking her death seriously.

"There is finally going to be some justice for Jessica,” her mother, Rita Prinzing, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "While we know that it won’t bring her back, he will be held accountable."

An obituary for Haban described her as a highly talented young woman who excelled at everything she put her mind to.

"She loved her children with all her heart and did everything she could to make their dreams come true," it read. "She really made an impact on many people's lives and was known for her caring heart, long conversations and putting others in front of her own personal needs."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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