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

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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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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