FRANKFORT, Ky. — Choked and knocked unconscious, Jeanette McCue said a her husband's violent attack in 2016 left her bruised and battered with black eyes, a split lip and marks around her neck.
McCue of Springfield, Ky., figures she would have been killed except her husband was too drunk to aim when he fired a gun at her.
The attack that sent her then-husband to prison for 10 years was shocking enough, she said. But she was shocked further when she sought to divorce him and discovered that an obscure provision of Kentucky law required her to pay for his lawyer because as an inmate he had no means to hire an attorney.
"This is crazy," McCue recalled telling her lawyer. "You want me to pay for him so I can divorce him?"
Others, including state Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat, think it's crazy too, and they are seeking to change the law in cases where a victim of domestic violence is seeking to divorce a spouse who has been convicted and incarcerated for the abuse.
"We have to change this immediately so it doesn't happen to anyone else," said McGarvey, who last week filed Senate Bill 68, a simple, one-sentence measure that would require the state to pay the legal costs of the abuser in such divorce cases. "This is the kind of problem we want to fix."
Three Republican and two Democratic state senators are co-sponsoring the bill. One is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"To me that's not justice," he said.
Sherry Currens, executive director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she was surprised to discover such a provision is in the law. She said her organization, which includes a network of domestic violence shelters across Kentucky, fully supports it.
"It is just a travesty," Currens said. "I'm really glad someone is taking the lead on this. Of course we will provide any assistance that we can."
The matter came to light through the work of Cassie Chambers with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, who as a legal aid lawyer was appointed to help Jeanette McCue with her divorce from her ex-husband, Michael McCue. He pleaded guilty last year to charges related to the attack.
Jeanette McCue said she was left impoverished because her ex-husband cleaned out their bank account before he left Washington County while she was being treated in the emergency room for her injuries. He was later arrested hundreds of miles away.
Chambers said she helped Jeanette McCue file for divorce and then had to explain to her that, in such cases where the spouse is in prison, the court is required to appoint a lawyer for the inmate and that the person seeking the divorce must pay the costs.
While the costs are limited by what the court deems reasonable — in Jeanette McCue's case, the bill was $160 — it seems unfair to victims, usually women, whose spouses have brutalized them and who often have lived under their control for many years, Chambers said.
Further, for some impoverished women even a modest legal fee might be out of reach, causing them to give up on efforts to divorce an abusive spouse, she said.
"Some may go back to an abuser," she said. "I think there's a lot of ways the courts put barriers in the way of poor people who just don't have access to resources."
Situations such as Jeanette McCue's are unusual, but after Chambers came across two more such situations where she represented women who had suffered domestic violence and were seeking divorces from incarcerated spouses, she decided to write an opinion piece about the law requiring them to pay legal costs of their abusers.
It ran Jan. 2 in the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and caught the eye of McGarvey, who said he was shocked to learn of the provision and was unaware of it although he is a lawyer and has done some work in domestic-violence cases.
"I read it and couldn't believe it's in the system," he said.
It wasn't immediately known how many states have similar laws.
Until 2016 when Virginia legislators passed a law requiring that state's judges to consider domestic violence and sexual assault convictions to determine spousal support, alimony generally was awarded on length of marriage and financial needs, according to the nonprofit domesticshelters.org.
At least one battered wife had been forced to pay alimony to her convicted ex-husband before any action was taken.
McGarvey credits Chambers with bringing Kentucky's problem to light and Jeanette McCue for being willing to speak out about her experience.
"She and Cassie are the story here, the power of peoples' voices," he said.
Jeanette McCue, a nurse and single parent, said she has been willing to speak out about her experience as she rebuilds her life in hopes of helping others. Her divorce became final in April.
Jeanette McCue said she wants the public to understand that domestic violence can happen to anyone and she wants to make the system easier for spouses who have survived it and are seeking to divorce their abusers.
"Domestic violence is one of those things you don't like to admit to people," she said. "If something I say can help someone else, I'd much rather help someone."
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