Another day, another dead woman in Massachusetts.
This time it was Mary Fairbairn of Groton. Mary was allegedly stabbed to death by her husband last Saturday. Mary died only a few weeks after Jennifer Kalicki was killed, allegedly by a man she was living within Tewksbury.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The idea started in 1981 and was supposed to help stop men from beating and killing their wives and partners. Since then, the numbers have gotten worse, from approximately three dead women in the U.S. per day back then, to nearly five a day today. Forty years of awareness did not save Mary or Jennifer.
Politicians love to talk about awareness, and nonprofit organizations love to suck money out of their donors for “awareness campaigns” because it makes them feel like they’re doing something. But all they’re doing is distracting energy away from what women really need, which is equal and effective protection of the law. That women don’t experience adequate, much less equal protection is well-known by victims, but not well publicized by all the “awareness” campaigns. Every dime spent increasing awareness of domestic violence is a dime that could have been spent exposing the way our legal system perpetuates abuse and increases the risk that women will die behind closed doors at the hands of a “loved one.” Instead of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we need an Unequal Justice for Women Awareness Month to help the public understand things like:
Prosecutors in Massachusetts routinely drop charges in domestic violence cases, not because the evidence isn’t strong enough but because the victim said she “didn’t want to testify.” In an abusive relationship where the batterer has control over the victim’s life, that’s the same as letting the criminal drop his own charges.
Prosecutors lie when they say they can’t go forward with a case where the victim is unwilling to testify. They routinely send subpoenas to reluctant witnesses in other cases, like drunk driving, and robbery. They have the same power to send subpoenas to women who are, after all, witnesses for the prosecution. Subpoena laws do not differentiate between domestic violence and other types of crimes, nor could they constitutionally do so.
The only exception is the so-called spousal privilege law, which permits a victim to choose not to testify if she’s married to her abuser. That Massachusetts has such an exception is reprehensible, because it suggests that abuse in marriage is less worthy of prosecution. Many state laws don’t work like that because it gives certain men immunity from prosecution simply because they’re married to their victims.
Most domestic violence doesn’t occur between spouses, so the privilege doesn’t apply in the majority of cases, but prosecutors drop the charges anyway, and blame the victim for “choosing” not to testify. If she ends up dead, they blame her for not letting them do their job.
Funny thing, prosecutors don’t let eyewitnesses to bank robbery “choose” not to show up for trial. If that were allowed, bank robbers would just hand eyewitnesses a bag of cash and the cases would go south every time.
Studies show that when prosecutors adopt no-drop policies, forbidding domestic violence victims to choose not to testify, and when laws explicitly prevent spousal privileges from applying, recidivism and homicide rates go down.
In short, legal protection, not awareness, saves women’s lives.
That said, there are two things we really need to be aware of:
Women are dying because prosecutors aren’t doing their jobs. They’ve effectively installed revolving doors at the courthouses, and told victims they have a “right” to live in fear and violence. Some District Attorneys disagree with this, but they can’t say so out loud because the pro-offender lobby that wants to eliminate the word criminal from the dictionary will pounce.
Who we elect as District Attorney matters. If we elect someone who supports the idea of letting victims choose not to testify, we’re voting for a person who thinks women’s lives aren’t worth very much.
This is a political issue. Be very aware.
Professor of sexual violence law
Wendy Murphy is adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law|Boston where she has taught for fifteen years. An impact litigator whose work in state and federal courts around the country has changed the law to improve protections for women’s and children’s constitutional rights, she developed and directs several projects in conjunction with the school’s Center for Law and Social Responsibility.