Put blame for domestic homicides where it belongs: on the killers

Those of us who appear regularly in the North Avenue courthouse, where Baltimore City's domestic violence cases are heard, were already aware of the "spike" in domestic violence homicides noted recently by The Sun. We knew that some of those women had asked for the legal system's protection, and that some had not received it. But some of us also knew that even if they had gotten protective orders, or pressed charges, or participated in prosecution, those actions might not have saved their lives.

Coverage of domestic violence tends to assume that there is some miracle combination of police, prosecutorial and court response that could prevent these deaths from happening. But the truth is that no such magical formula exists. Social science research has told us for decades that the criminal justice response to domestic violence is largely ineffectual in terms of decreasing overall rates of domestic violence. Notwithstanding the significantly increased criminal justice system response following the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, and the hundreds of millions of dollars directed to police, prosecutors and courts since that time, rates of domestic violence have fallen no more over the last 20 years than the crime rate has fallen generally.

In fact, from 2001 to 2010, rates of domestic violence fell less than the decrease in the general crime rate. And story after story about women who do everything "right" — get protective orders, contact the police, participate in prosecution — and die nonetheless should have taught us by now that some deaths simply cannot be prevented, because some abusers are not going to be deterred by the threat of criminal justice intervention. Baltimore women Melissa Davis, Katie Hadel and Candace Hurt all had interactions with the legal system, and that system didn't save their lives. What's surprising is that we still expected it to, given the dearth of evidence to support the idea that it can.

Stories like these encourage us to continue to blame the criminal justice system, without looking at the myriad ways that we contribute to a climate in which violence against women continues at ridiculous rates. What we should be asking instead is: What else should we be doing to teach our children that violence against their intimate partners is unacceptable? What else should we be doing to hold those who abuse their partners accountable for their actions? Should we be investing more in prevention? Should we be looking at whether police are best suited to intervene, given the sky-high rates of domestic violence among police officers? The National Center for Women and Policing reported last week that two studies showed that at least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, as opposed to around 10 percent in the general population. What impact might that have on the willingness of police to protect those subjected to abuse?

While it's certainly worth attempting to address the holes in the criminal justice response, there are so many more questions that we need to ask if we really hope to make an impact on intimate partner abuse.

Melissa Davis wasn't killed because she failed to cooperate with prosecutors. She was killed because her husband wanted to kill her. Katie Hadel wasn't killed because she failed to separate from her ex-boyfriend or because she returned to her home after his release from jail; she was killed because that man wanted her dead. Candace Hurt wasn't killed because she failed to get a protective order; she was killed because her husband shot her.

Until we begin to focus on why these men chose to take the actions they did — instead of on what their partners failed to do — we will never stop domestic violence homicides.

Leigh Goodmark is the co-director of the University of Baltimore School of Law's Center on Applied Feminism and the author of "A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System." Her email is

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