AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would allow judges to impose a life sentence for someone convicted of murder in a domestic violence case.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, originally would have made a life sentence mandatory for domestic violence murders. But lawmakers were concerned that the mandatory sentence might fall on victims who kill their abusers in self defense, and they amended the bill to add a new aggravating circumstance to state sentencing laws that allows for a life sentence.

Current law allows a judge to impose a life sentence when the victim is a child under the age of 6 or a pregnant woman.

Jackson introduced the proposal on behalf of constituents in St. Francis who were stunned to learn Jesse Marquis, the man convicted of murdering Amy Theriault in 2014, could have been offered a plea deal that would result in his eventual release from prison. Marquis and Theriault had recently broken up and Theriault was staying with a friend when she was killed. Marquis was a fugitive for a week before being apprehended.

“Amy was gone. Her children were motherless. My world was in chaos while trying to cope with the emotional and physical pain of losing my daughter, and I had to contend with the fact that this monster had the possibility of being free in the future to menace my family and our community again,” Marquis’ mother, Barbara Theriault, told the committee last week.

About half of all the murders in Maine are committed by a domestic partner – usually a man – or an immediate family member of the victim, according to state crime statistics.

Some committee members said they had no sympathy for domestic violence killers but worried that the original bill might have unintended consequences for victims..

“The only thing we are really looking at is adding another aggravating factor,” said Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland. “If we go past this point, we are going to falsely imprison victims of domestic violence, not all the time, but enough to be, ‘Oh my God, she’s in prison for life and she shouldn’t be.’ ”

Reckitt said she hoped adding the aggravating factor would “hammer into the brains of judges … that you’ve got to take these aggravating factors seriously and when you have a case like the one that we had, that person should be sentenced to life, period.”

Jackson said he understood the reasoning for the committee’s decision.

“I don’t want any woman who has suffered under years of abuse to get caught into this when she finally strikes back,” Jackson said. “But, what (Amy Threriault’s) family is most concerned about is that there is wiggle room right now and I don’t believe it should be. It should be very much a door slammed shut and no one ever has to worry about them being out on the street with their kids, their grandchildren.”

The law change will next go to the full Legislature for additional votes.

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