A Guide for Women's Rights
Activists & Journalists
a woman is murdered by her intimate partner, suddenly a community's
denial about the seriousness and the potential lethality of domestic
violence is swept away. Other women being battered realize they
could be next, and often calls to law enforcement and restraining
order applications increase dramatically. The victim's family,
their lives rocked by the loss, look to law enforcement for justice
and to the community for support. And for women activists, this
is a time when law enforcement and city/county officials are most
approachable about the changes that must be made if women are
to be protected from this deadly violence.
It is also
a time when the media takes one of its most sickening turns in
crime coverage: blaming the victim. In nearly every instance,
media coverage will paint the victim as a drug addict, a gold-digger,
negligent mom, slut or lunatic. At the same time they'll seek
out neighbors, teachers or family members happy to expound on
what a good man and father the murderer is.
and prosecutors will likely do a passable investigation of the
homicide itself, rarely if ever do they look back of the pattern
of violence and law enforcement ineptitude that preceded the murder.
And there almost always is a pattern, as domestic violence rarely
comes from out of nowhere, but only after repeated and escalating
violence, much of it reported to police who fail in a million
ways to provide the intended protections to the victim.
It is that
pattern of violence and law enforcement complicity that offers
the best opportunity to analyze and expose the ineffectiveness
of police and prosecutorial response to domestic violence.
a women's rights activist determined to prevent future homicides,
a journalist, or a family member desperate to know how this tragedy
came to be, your independent investigation of the case can open
the door to both humanizing the victim and exposing the law enforcement
failures that led to the death. Here are some guidelines to investigating.
Comb through every newspaper report of the homicide. They will
often give you the location of the murder; names of family members,
neighbors and other potential witnesses; where she and/or he worked;
if there was a restraining order or police record. Talk with the
reporters who wrote the stories they may be willing give
you other contacts or leads. Also, establishing a relationship
with them early on will help you get access when you're ready
to release your investigation.
There are a number of documents available on the public record
that will give you investigative clues. Every state, agency or
county will have different ways of accessing those documents,
so step one would be to contact your local Criminal Court Clerk's
office and ask what their process is. Here are some basic documents
you'll want to look at.
records. This includes both civil (divorce and restraining order
records) and criminal records. Any time the perpetrator was
charged with a crime, there would be a criminal court file showing
at least date of the incident, charges filed, and disposition
(dismissed, convicted, etc.). If there was a preliminary hearing
or trial, transcripts of those proceedings would also be available.
Domestic violence restraining orders are usually in the civil
court clerk's office, not criminal. Restraining orders are key,
as they'll contain the victim's sworn statement on a number
of violent incidents against her.
Police reports. Getting police reports is a little chancier
but critically important. If the perpetrator committed suicide
after the murder (true in about a of all domestic violence homicides),
all police records will become available as soon as the murder
investigation is complete. If, however, he's still alive and
being investigated or prosecuted, most police records will become
off-limits until prosecution is complete.
To get the records, mail or fax a letter to the records department
of the police agency requesting "any and all police reports
involving John P. Doe or Jane J. Doe," giving as much identifying
information as possible (at least date of birth or approximate
age). Also ask for any police reports of crimes at the address
where the homicide occurred or where the victim lived.
If you know specific dates of incidents, ask for those reports
specifically, but use the wording "including but not limited
to ..." so they don't just send you the reports of incidents
you already know about. Be sure to include the murder itself.
(For a sample letter click
here. NOTE: Sample refers to California Public Records
Act. Outside California, just delete those references.)
Dispatch records. As police reports are not written on
every incident, in the same letter requesting police reports,
also request dispatch records showing every time police were
called to the location. Police will send you as little information
as they think they can get away with, so when you get the documents,
if there are dispatch calls that don't have accompanying reports,
do another request for those reports specifically.
Check out everything on the dispatch records, even if it doesn't
appear to be a domestic violence report. Because they don't
want to do the work of a domestic violence investigation, police
will often write up DV calls as vandalism, disturbing the peace
... even dog-barking.
Autopsy report. This is available from the coroner's
office as soon as the murder investigation is closed. The autopsy
itself may tip you off to other long-standing injuries but,
more importantly, it will contain a summary of what police have
told the coroner, so can yield a wealth of information on the
murder investigation itself.
Certainly the most intimidating part of the investigative process
is the personal interview. It's easy to be shy and reticent to
intrude on people's privacy at a moment when they're grief-stricken
and vulnerable. But if handled with sensitivity, you'll find that
people want to talk about what happened to their friend,
loved one or family member, especially if they think some good
might come of it.
to interview people who would have witnessed or heard the violence
and/or contact with police, or who the victim would have confided
in about her situation. Her neighbors, friends, and co-workers
can likely give you a map of the violence and of the victim's
attempts to extricate herself from it. They can also often give
you a picture of how law enforcement responded and of what that
did both to the victim's state of danger and to her state of mind.
You may also get leads on ex-wives or girlfriends of the perpetrator.
Obviously they can be important witnesses and may be anxious to
some tips for interviewing:
introduction should be brief, clear, and leave ample room for
the witness to say no. If you get a no, ask if you can contact
them at another time try to keep them from closing the
door to you irrevocably. Make it clear who you are and why you
are investigating; for example, "I'm a women's rights activist
and I'm looking into how police or prosecutors might have prevented
what happened to your sister."
you've gotten their consent to an interview, spend some time
being human and getting to know them ... express your sorrow
for their loss, your interest in who the victim was and their
relationship with her, in how her family and friends are dealing
with the loss.
Once the witness is at ease with you, lay out clearly the parameters
of the interview. "I'd like to know what you know of the
past violence in the couple's relationship and if police were
ever called." This lets them know you're not there to exploit
their grief, but to get to the bottom of what happened. It will
help them focus their thoughts, and allow you to nudge them
back on track when the interview goes down an alleyway.
permission to take notes or record the interview. There are
pluses and minuses to each, but one way or another you want
to carefully document the information you're getting. Always
date the interview notes and get contact phone numbers and addresses
so you can recontact the witness if questions come up.
to focus your questioning in an organized fashion start,
maybe, with the first time they knew there were problems in
the relationship and move forward from there. Get as much detailed
information as possible. When this incident happened, was there
anyone else present? Did she call police? Did they respond?
Do you know what they told her? Did they make an arrest?
down the date of incidents wherever possible. No one will remember
exact dates, but what time of year was it was it winter
or summer? Was it before this Christmas incident you mentioned
or after? Approximate dates can be critically important in locating
documents and corroborating information with other witnesses.
ask for the names and contact information for other people who
may have information friends of hers or his, roommates,
co-workers, social service agencies she dealt with, where she
went to school. Each interview will likely yield four or five
other potential witnesses, each of whom has a piece of the picture.
talking with the family, ask them about any documents they may
found in the victim's effects. She likely had copies of restraining
orders, police reports, Child Protective Services reports if
they were involved, applications for victim assistance, for
housing subsidies any and all of them can yield more
information, more leads to check out, and establish what was
on the record when law enforcement responded. Never take their
only copy of a document! Go to the closest copy machine, make
copies, and take the original back before you leave the area.
Caution the witness never to give their only copy of anything
to anyone, especially police or the press.
if the witness has any photographs of the victim. Remember,
these are the only photos there will ever be of this person,
so gather as many as you can and always return the original.
Photos are important in giving a human face to the tragedy and
you'll want to use them in everything written you produce on
for permission to recontact them if questions come up later,
and ask them to contact you if anything else comes to mind.
Often after you leave, the process of remembering that your
interview triggered will cause the witness to recall other details
or incidents. Make sure they can find you to share that information.
Also, later interviews with others may give you the tools you
need to tie down specifics with an earlier witness. For example,
"Her sister described a similar incident to the one you
described that happened on Thanksgiving. Do you think that's
the same incident or a different one?"
finally, ask each witness if they'd be willing to talk to the
press once your investigation is made public. Stress that they
can control the interview what subjects they're willing
to discuss, if they want their name used or not, etc. Having
witnesses who are willing to speak publicly is key to getting
media coverage, so put some time and effort into allaying their
fears and preparing them to deal with the press when the time
If the homicide is prosecuted in the criminal justice system,
court proceedings will offer a wealth of information. The best
place to get a full picture early in the process is the preliminary
hearing, where the prosecution will lay out at least enough information
to show there is probable cause to convict on each charge. Often
the victim's family and other key witnesses will testify, so if
you haven't already interviewed them, this is a good place to
of course, will present the full body of evidence in the case
and should, by all means, be a part of your investigation. But
don't neglect other proceedings. Even at arraignment, bail hearings
and other procedural hearings, information that will be useful
may come out, so it's a good practice to attend every hearing
possible. That also puts the court and the press on notice that
the case is being watched.
is none of these proceedings is likely to delve deeply into the
past history of violence in the relationship or police response
to that history. Why? First, because the past violence not generally
seen as directly connected to the homicide. And, more importantly,
when their case often rests on police testimony, to show those
same officers' complicity in allowing the violence to escalate
into homicide is not in the prosecution's interest. In the long
run, you're the only one with a passionate interest in that history,
so it's your job to uncover it.
Investigation to Make Change
Once you've completed your investigation, double-sourcing wherever
possible, you'll want to disseminate it widely. Step one is to
write it up. The case sheet should be brief (two to three pages
max) and contain only the factual information you know you can
prove. Probably the best format is to lay out a chronology of
incidents, including whether police were called, how they handled
it, and if it was prosecuted. For examples of case sheets, go
to the Violence Against Women page on our website, www.purpleberets.org.
If you want
to include an analysis of your findings or recommendations for
change, they should be separate from the case sheet. The case
sheet should be considered fact; any editorializing should be
your own write-up of the case for dissemination to your own list
and to other women's groups is the best way to get the whole story
told. Here you have the opportunity to include all the factual
information you've unearthed, your analysis of what went wrong,
the impact on other women, and the need for change.
also want the information broadcast to the general public. Here
are some ideas for telling the world what you've found.
Breaking your investigation in the media is a strategic move.
Often your local press protects your law enforcement agencies,
so breaking it into a nearby metropolitan area can shame them
into covering it locally. Also, you may want to sponsor an event
a memorial of some kind to give the media (especially
television) a reason to cover it.
media is an art in itself, so there are no easy how-to's. If you
have established media contacts who are sympathetic, contact them
and sell them the story. Also contact reporters who originally
covered the homicide. It's already their story, so they're the
most likely ones to do follow-up stories.
to work with each media outlet individually, crafting a "hook"
that will appeal to them. And be ready for the media frenzy
journalists are happiest when all the work is done for them, so
have documents ready to fax out, make photos easily accessible,
and answer their calls immediately. If they're on deadline and
you're not available, you may lose the whole story or have only
law enforcement's side told.
your local public radio station when you're doing your media work.
Unlike commercial media outlets, especially television, public
radio will likely give you a lengthy interview, often followed
by call-in questions. This gives you a chance to get the whole
story out in all its complexities rather than just a 10-second
sound bite. Take a family member or other witness with you if
they're willing to be interviewed.
One more media
tip always go to law enforcement's press conferences on
the homicide. Their press conferences are likely to be much better
attended by the press than your own, and you too can shout out
questions police and prosecution officials will have to answer
on camera. Also the press will likely ask you for comments as
well, giving you a chance to counter, and maybe even overshadow,
the official line on the case.
Another effective way to keep the story alive and to get official
notice is to take your investigation to other investigative bodies.
Your local Grand Jury, death review team, police oversight board,
women's commission all these are able to launch official
investigations into law enforcement's handling of the case. And
since officials will listen to other officials a lot quicker than
to grassroots feminists, such investigations can get your public
officials to "buy in" to your criticisms of criminal
justice officials. This is definitely worth a try.
Demonstrations and Speak-Outs
Another way to get official interest in making changes is to organize
speak-outs or demonstrations at public meetings. Most city council
or board of supervisors meetings have a time set aside for public
input, and you can pack the session with individuals and organizations
demanding that changes be made. This is also another media opportunity,
so be sure to alert the media to your plans