This article is the first in a series about how the criminal justice system fails domestic violence victims in Mississippi.
On the night of June 15, 2018, Lauderdale County authorities found 9-year-old Kinadee Pace hiding in the top of her bunk bed.
Kinadee Pace holds a photo of her stepmother, Marsha Spears Harbour, on the one year anniversary of her death. Credit: Kelsi Long
What the young girl had witnessed that night is unspeakable: Her stepmother Marsha Spears Harbour was shot in the head, allegedly by her father Truitt Pace. Harbour died a few hours later at the hospital, and Truitt Pace was charged with second-degree murder and booked in the Lauderdale County jail.
Kinadee, now 12, had seen more of the violence in the next room than anyone could have imagined.
“My daughter was a very sparkly, glittery, vibrant personality before this,” said Kelsi Long, the girl’s mother and first wife of Truitt Pace. “I had to put her in counseling, and it was a very long time before I got that sparkly, glittery child back.”
In Mississippi, there are many stories like these. But because the state is one of five in the country not to have a domestic violence fatality review, or a review of deaths caused by domestic violence for the purpose of preventing future deaths, there is no data on exactly how many.
The reviews involve selecting certain cases that are assessed by a team of law enforcement, court personnel, attorneys, victim advocates and medical professionals, among others, to identify commonalities and gaps in the system-wide response to domestic violence cases.
Victim advocates and those who work in the system say Mississippi is dropping the ball by not tracking this and other domestic violence-related data. The result is a disjointed response from law enforcement, prosecutors and courts that fails vulnerable people.
Heather Wagner, an attorney who served as the director of the Domestic Violence Division of the Bureau of Victim Assistance with the state Attorney General’s office from 2006 to 2014, said more should be done.
“It is very disappointing that with all the education opportunities afforded to law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and court personnel related to the potential danger of ongoing domestic violence situations that more isn’t being done to try and prevent these terrible situations before they occur,” said Wagner, who also served as the director of the Office of Interpersonal Violence at the state health department.
“There are effective strategies that can be used to ensure that each case is viewed independently and assessed for risk level,” she continued. “We are failing some of our most vulnerable citizens by not prioritizing the use of these strategies, which may include on-site risk assessment by law enforcement and better sharing of information and case history between law enforcement, prosecutors, civil attorneys and the courts.”
Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention, an organization that helps domestic violence victims in Mississippi, echoes Wagner.
“Because these fatalities aren’t reviewed, we are missing a good opportunity to learn what we’re doing wrong,” she said. “It’s important for us as a state to look at all these cases and evaluate what works and what doesn’t.”
And attempts to better track domestic violence crimes have not taken off. As of Feb. 1, only 93 out of 512 law enforcement agencies have completed the training required to participate in a new, mandated system that would better track domestic violence, according to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.
Despite the fact they are required by law to become certified and use the new system, there is no penalty for not doing so.
Over the course of two months, Mississippi Today asked for information from and interviews with experts in the state attorney general’s office, which serves as the primary state agency offering assistance and resources for domestic violence victims. The agency also offers education and training of law enforcement and prosecutors in domestic violence cases, in addition to other domestic violence-related duties. None of these requests were filled, so the agency’s efforts surrounding domestic violence and its record keeping around the issue are unclear.
For most of the last decade, Mississippi has consistently ranked in the top 20 states for the number of women murdered by men, according to the Violence Policy Center. This research is based strictly on the numbers of women killed by men, but it does not reveal any information about the relationship between the suspect and victim or whether there was a history of domestic abuse, as data from a domestic violence fatality review would.
Studies show women everywhere are more likely to be murdered with a gun than all other means combined. They are also most likely to be killed by someone they know.
And the ripple effects of domestic violence are hard to overstate. It has grave and lifelong effects on the victims, the children who experience it and those who lose a loved one to it.
“(Kinadee’s) life was changed that day,” said Long. “It was a childhood that was taken away from her, an innocence.”
On the night Harbour died, Kinadee’s father Truitt Pace was charged with second-degree murder and booked in the Lauderdale County jail. Despite the fact the charge would later be upgraded by the district attorney’s office to first-degree murder, Pace bonded out of jail several days later on a $100,000 bond set by a justice court judge — a relatively low bond according to the guidelines that dictate bond ranges for certain crimes.
Ondray Harris, a justice court judge who had been in his position less than a year at the time, set the bond for Truitt Pace. When reached by Mississippi Today, he said he generally tries not to set high bonds because of what he’s been taught in his training from the Mississippi Judicial College, which trains and educates judges and other court personnel in the state.
“I had a lot come my way that year and a lot of stuff I didn’t have the knowledge about that I have now,” said Harris, who could not recall Truitt Pace’s case specifically. “I’ve learned now to listen to the scenario and the severity of it … It would be a lot different because there’s a lot of different knowledge I’ve accumulated since then.”
Truitt Pace had no prior criminal record, and there is no record of law enforcement ever being called to his and Harbour’s home.
As a result, he spent less than a week in jail before bonding out and has been free since — nearly three years later. Attempts to reach Truitt Pace’s attorney in the public defender’s office were unsuccessful.
“That is a slap in the face to that woman’s family, and I’m not so sure he’s not a danger to the community,” said Christi McCoy, lawyer and project director for North Mississippi Rural Legal Services who works primarily with victims of domestic violence through the Earlene Gardner Victims Assistance Program.
Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University and a prominent figure in the field of domestic violence research, said the major issues in the criminal justice system apply to domestic violence as well.
“One of the issues in the field is that privilege and resources oftentimes determine whether or not laws are applied,” she said.
For example, judges consider a prior criminal record when determining a person’s level of supervision on probation or when determining an offender’s bond amount. Men of color are more likely to have a record due to over-policing in those communities and bias in the justice system, Campbell said.
Truitt Pace, a white man, had no “priors.” But Harbour’s family members say there was a history of domestic violence in their relationship.
Toward the end of her life, Harbour began talking to Long, Truitt Pace’s first wife, when she would pick up Kinadee on the weekends. The two developed a special relationship.
“She would kind of hang around a little bit longer and try to, you know, pick my brain about things, how it was when we were together,” Long said.
The closer they got, the more Harbour shared. Long still has texts from Harbour revealing details of the abuse.
“He’s starting to tell me that my kids would be better off if I killed myself like my mom …” one read.
Another talks about a time “truitt had me pinned on the bed with a knife to my throat.”
Long said Harbour told her Truitt Pace had broken her nose. He would threaten to kill her, telling her he dreamed of her being dead from a gunshot wound and hiding her body in a culvert he knew of in Newton County, Long said.
Harbour feared if she had him arrested, it would put her, her three children and Kinadee in more danger, said Long.
“She knew nothing would inevitably get done, and it would put her in more danger. At the end of the day, it’s just a piece of paper,” said Long, referring to a domestic violence protection order. “She was so scared.”
Harbour’s sister Ashley Hagan describes Harbour as “a light in the darkness” — someone always looking to help others.
Marsha Spears Harbour, front, poses with her sister Ashley Hagan in this photo from 2016, two years before her death. Credit: Ashley Hagan
“She helped me numerous times through all kinds of stuff,” said Hagan. “She’d also help her friends through anything — a place to stay, food. She didn’t just say ‘I’m here if you need me,’ she was actually there.”
When Hagan got the call in the early hours of June 16, 2018, telling her that her sister had been killed, she learned for the first time that she was an organ donor.
“It gave my heart happiness in that darkness because she was still helping people,” Hagan said.
But beneath a cheerful and helpful exterior, Harbour was fighting her own battles.
Hagan said Truitt Pace was always very controlling of Harbour, who Hagan describes as a social butterfly.
He was possessive of her even around her three children, whom she had with her first husband, Hagan said.
“He alienated her. With the kids, he tried not letting her take them home (to their father’s),” she said. “In the times they weren’t fighting, if (one of the kids) would sit with her while they were watching TV he’d push the kids away and say ‘No, go play.’ He always had to have her to himself.”
Hagan recounted an incident that happened about a month or two into her stay at their house, when Truitt Pace came home to Harbour taking a bath. Harbour had her phone in the bathtub, and Hagan said he became angry because he thought she was on social media, which he did not like.
Harbour told him she was using the phone to listen to music, but he still became angry.
“They were fighting over the iPhone, and he threw her iPhone on her back so goddamn hard the iPhone was shattered and bent from my sister’s back,” she said. “It was bad.”
Hagan banged on the door and threatened to call 911 if Truitt Pace didn’t leave the house.
“He took me serious, and he left,” she remembered. “Marsha was a little upset with me … She was scared it was going to be worse for her” and her three children if the police were involved.
Harbour, like many other women in an abusive relationship, struggled to leave. It takes an average of seven attempts for a domestic violence victim to finally leave the relationship, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
And leaving is the most unsafe time for a victim — a statistic that became a tragic reality for Harbour, who was in the process of divorcing Truitt Pace when she died, family members say.
Psychological ramifications of abuse can also prevent a victim from seeking help, according to Wendy Mahoney, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are commonly seen in victims of domestic violence.
“The abuse impacts an individual psychologically in a way most people tend not to even understand,” said Mahoney. “If you have fears of retaliation and additional harm, that can prevent you from getting help.”
Mahoney and others who work with victims of interpersonal violence also point to the constant overprocessing going on in a victim’s mind.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence use a common phrase to describe why some women stay in abusive relationships: “the devil you know.”
“A lot of times, people who are victims have learned to cope. They know the patterns and can anticipate when tensions are building, so they will change their behavior to try to de-escalate a situation,” said Georgia Grodowitz, the executive director at Haven House Family Shelter in Vicksburg, one of the state’s 12 shelters for domestic violence victims. “Or, they will sometimes even escalate the situation in order to get it over with so they can move on into that quiet after-period.”
Because they’ve become expert at adapting to the situation, learning and mastering the ins and outs, the unknown can seem more frightening than the known.
“They think, ‘What am I jumping into? I know what I’m jumping out of.’ It’s the ‘devil you know is worse than the devil you don’t know’” thought process, said Grodowitz.
Nearly three years after Harbour’s death, the family is eager for justice. But Truitt Pace’s trial has been rescheduled five times. The trial was moved this week once more from Feb. 8 to Aug. 16.
In the meantime, he lives in Alabama where he runs a roofing and construction business. He has turned down repeated opportunities to plead guilty, court documents show.
The reasons for the delays range from “attorney out of town” and “time to investigate,” but district attorney Kassie Coleman said it is more complicated than that. A year-long wait for Harbour’s autopsy to come back from the Mississippi Crime Lab, a turnover of public defenders handling Truitt Pace’s case and the COVID-19 pandemic all contributed to the delays, said Coleman.
A case has not been tried in Lauderdale County since February 2020, Coleman said. An attempt to seat a jury in October led to a mistrial after a judge discovered on the first day he had been exposed to the coronavirus over the weekend.
“We indict about 1,200 cases a year here, and there’s only so many weeks in the year,” she said, noting her passion for prosecuting domestic violence and related crimes. “I spent eight years prosecuting crimes against women and children as an assistant district attorney, so it is very near and dear to my heart.”
In the meantime, Harbour’s family waits, and Pace walks free.
-- Article credit to Kate Royals of Mississippi Today --