By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair

Any form of criminal violence is a human tragedy. This is especially true in murder/suicides. The Violence Policy Center reported that in 2011 there were approximately 1382 murder/suicides in this country—most of which involved family violence. A stunning, and disturbing, spousal murder/suicide occurred last month in Harris County in an upscale Woodlands area. Graham Gunn and his wife Karen—a prominent veterinarian at the Veterinary Medical Center—were undergoing divorce proceedings. On Monday, May 28, Graham Gunn parked his vehicle down the street from the family residence. He was armed with a handgun. His ten-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter were home at the residence. A finance employee with a technology company, Graham Gunn knew exactly what he was going to do: kill his wife and then himself. He did precisely that in the backyard of the family residence as the 12-year-old daughter looked on.

Karen Gunn feared her husband. He was volatile and unstable. The Houston Chronicle carried a report two days after the shooting about Karen’s fear. Her divorce attorney Susan Meyers told the newspaper that last December Graham Gunn went to Karen’s office at the veterinary hospital and held a gun to her head. Hospital staff members summoned the Harris County Sheriff’s Office with a 911 call, but by the time the police arrived, the husband had left the hospital. Myers said the deputies told Dr. Gunn that since it was her word against his, they had no basis to arrest the threatening husband.

“No one else saw it,” Myers said. “Other people came to her rescue, but they didn’t see the gun. By the time the police got there, [Graham Gunn] was long gone.”

This case disturbs us. Why? Had Graham Gunn went to his wife’s office and sexually assaulted her and had she reported the sexual assault to the police, they would have immediately arrested the husband. Why is a sexual assault allegation treated differently than a gun-threat of violence? We don’t think it should be.

In the State of Texas, under Article 14.01-1404 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, a police officer has the authority to arrest an individual without a warrant if (1) there is probable cause to believe that individual has committed a crime and (2) the arrest falls within one of the exception spelled out Article 14.03. One of those exceptions involves a police officer’s belief that an individual has committed an offense of family violence.

In the Karen Gunn case, the responding deputies had a direct report from a private citizen that her husband had placed a gun to her head with either a specific or implied threat to kill. That report certainly provided a factual basis for the officers to investigate the matter further or secure an arrest warrant. Had the police been told by Dr. Gunn that she had just been sexually assaulted by her husband, they would have immediately launched efforts to arrest Graham Gunn.

This case underscores our society’s tolerance of domestic violence against women, especially in the law enforcement community. The public record is saturated with cases where the police have not taken seriously threats of violence made by husbands toward their wives. This should not be the case, and it most definitely should not have been the case with the spousal threat made against Dr. Gunn.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has said that probable cause exists for a warrantless arrest when “at [the] moment the facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge and of which he [has[ reasonably trustworthy information … sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the [accused person has] committed or was committing an offense.”

Probable cause, according to the appeals court, does not require the police to have “personal knowledge” of all the facts so long as the person reporting an offense is credible and reliable. It would be difficult to imagine a more credible or reliable report that a crime had been committed than the one made by Dr. Gunn. Staff members saw the husband at the hospital; they knew the couple were undergoing a difficult divorce proceeding.

The issue then was not whether it was Dr. Gunn’s word against her husband. The only issue was whether a credible and reliable report that a family violence offense had been committed. The “she said/he said” theory should be employed in arrest situations involving misdemeanor or some non-violent property crimes, but when a threat of violence is made, especially in a family situation, the only issue the officer at the scene should consider is whether the report of the offense is credible and reliable.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Department dropped the ball in this case. A wife, a mother, a doctor is dead. Two children are without their parents, forcing grandparents to take up the cause of raising them. We would only hope that in the future if a credible person reports a threat of family violence, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department will consider it reliable enough to make an arrest.  We know all too well that many allegations of domestic abuse are false and are often fueled by the history of a bad relationship or a nasty divorce, but this tragedy was avoidable, especially when witnesses confirmed the abuse.

It may not be as “exciting” as allegations of rape, but domestic abuse, especially when weapons are involved, is considerably more dangerous.

By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
John Floyd is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization

Christian, Carol, Slain Veterinarian Had Feared For Her Safety, Houston Chronicle, p. B7 (May 30, 2012)