I spent a good 10 years of my life in domestic violence court. First, as a public defender, representing (mostly) men accused of physical abuse of their wives, girlfriends, children, lovers. My attitude back then was flip: Who knows what really happened? It’s he-said/ she-said. If they’re of a similar size, let them fight. My feelings were ridiculous, arrogant, sexist, and wrong.
Years later, I came to work for an organization that represented women (and men) in need of orders of protection from their abusers. It was during this time, and later as a divorce attorney, when I became sickened at the way the civil and criminal justice system treats domestic violence victims. Unlike other crimes, where the victims are often supported (almost to a comical level) by victim advocates and other staffers there to make sure their stay in the criminal justice system is oh-so-warm-and-fuzzy, rape victims and domestic violence victims face suspicion right from the beginning. We’re not sure we believe you. We need hear his side of the story, first. After all, you could be lying. Women do that.
I’ve defended drug dealers, murderers, drunk drivers, and worse, Never, EVER in the course of my legal career, did I see such an emphasis on “hearing the defendant’s side of the story.” When someone steals a car, do you think the entire criminal justice system gives him the benefit of the doubt? Waits to hear his side of the story? Hell no. They pound a confession out of the guy as soon as possible and toss him in the clink.
All of this makes the criminal justice system treacherous for domestic violence victims. No matter how severe their injuries (she could have done it to herself), no matter how strong their evidence (she could have gotten her friends to lie for her), they are always ALWAYS met with just enough suspicion, especially by other women (he probably cheated on her so she made it up. I would never do this). This has always befuddled me. Shouldn’t we all be on the same side on this one? I’ve come across women who abused their husbands over the course of my career, but never a woman who beat the living shit out her husband. Despite what men’s rights advocates would like us to believe, domestic violence is very much a male-on-female crime. Women are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence. This makes the misguided teens who still love Chris Brown and the women defending Avalanche goalkeeper Semyon Varlamov even more of a mystery to me.
Back when the Cubs first signed Milton Bradley, I raised holy hell about having an abuser on my beloved Cubs. “But he’s never been arrested for anything!” other fans yelled. “This is a personal matter! They’re still married!” “He was never charged, so he must not have done it!” Five years later, Milton Bradley is serving three years in the California Penal system for serial domestic abuse. Why did I believe he really did abuse his wife from the start? Because, aside from treating it like every other crime and assuming the victim was telling the truth, the police report said her cell phone was destroyed. Abusers always take out the phones so victims can’t call for help.
So let’s take a look at how a typical domestic abuse situation goes down. Abusers generally get bolder as time goes on. By the time a woman (or man) is scared enough to call the police, it’s not the first time she’s been beaten by a long shot, and she’s usually in fear for her life. Before the police arrive, the abuser has a good 5-10 minutes to threaten the victim’s life, her children’s life, tell her she’s crazy, that no one will ever believe her, that the courts will take her children away, etc. etc.
By the time the police show up, the victim is already regretting her decision. After all, he’ll eventually be back, and he won’t be pleased that she called the police. The abuser not being pleased usually does not end well for the victim. She might start minimizing her story now, or she may wait until she’s contacted by a prosecutor. But as soon as a victim realizes no one is going to lock this guy up and throw away the key, she panics. Often, abusers don’t allow their victims to work outside the home, so she’s also worried about how she (and her children) are going to survive without the abuser to bring home a paycheck.
Meanwhile, if the abuser actually spends some time in jail (as opposed to getting immediately released and told to stay away from the victim for 72-hours), he uses his one phone call from prison to call home, to threaten his victim, to tell her all the ways he’s going to punish her and the children when he gets home. Unless she makes this right.
By the time the wheels of justice are “rolling,” meaning the victim has a court date or the defendant has an arraignment, she’s realized that she’s completely on her own. No victim advocates have called her, no prosecutors are holding her hand and promising to put this guy where he can’t hurt her anymore, no cops are in the courtroom to make sure the abuser isn’t able to intimidate her any further. She’s out there alone. She cracks. She recants. The charges are dropped, and the case is chalked up to just another woman who made up an abuse story because she was angry with her boyfriend.
BUT. There are two cases that make dropping the charges harder. One is when a woman has visible injuries or is injured so severely that she requires hospitalization. The other is when a victim is smart enough to take photos of her injuries. When a prosecutor actually gets a case where the victim’s injuries match the police report, it’s like Christmas morning. Because NOW the prosecutor has some physical evidence against the abuser. It’s no longer he-said, she-said. When I see that a victim’s injuries match up with what she told the police happened, I believe her. Before trial. Without hearing the abuser’s side of the story. Before the abuser has time to talk her out of pressing charges.
Domestic violence is a different kind of crime, and it requires a different kind of response from professional sports leagues and other employers. While I in no way suggest that accused abusers should be deprived of the presumption of innocence in their criminal cases, employers are free to discipline employees for things that are not even illegal, much less proven in a court of law. How often do we see athletes suspended for using drugs? For using a racial slur? For criticizing the communist leader of Cuba? If taken to a criminal court, a lot of these cases would never stand up. Yet teams are quick to distance themselves from the players’ actions because they don’t want to be associated with bad behavior.
Unless, of course, that bad behavior is beating the ever-loving shit out of your girlfriend. Then we have to wait for all the facts to come out. While we wait for the facts to come out, abusers make more threats, victims lose their nerve, financial settlements are arranged. The abuser suffers no consequences and is free to keep right on abusing.
I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s high time professional sports leagues treated domestic violence as a deadly serious problem (did I mention that Milton Bradley’s wife is now dead? The cause of her death has not been released to the public). And it’s pasts time that their fans demanded they do so. Women make up roughly 45% of professional sports fans. Every time a team takes the side of their athlete without considering the women’s side of the story, it’s a direct slap in the face to female fans. And women should treat it as such.Ozzie Guillen was suspended from the Miami Marlins because the Cuban community protested his statements and demanded he be held accountable. Where are the women who demand their sports teams be held accountable? Are we all just so twitterpated by pro athlete’s rugged good looks that we don’t care what they do in their spare time?
If so, shame on us. Shame on all of us.