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Investigating Domestic Violence Homicide
A Guide for Women's Rights
Activists & Journalists

Sexism KillsWhen 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.

While police 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.

Whether you're 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.

Media Accounts
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.

Public Documents
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.

• Court 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.

Personal Interviews
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.

You'll want 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 talk.

Here are some tips for interviewing:

• Your 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."

• Once 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.

• Ask 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.

• Try 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?

• Tie 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.

• Always 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.

• When 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.

• Ask 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 the case.

• Ask 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?"

• And 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 comes.

Court Proceedings
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 make contact.

The trial, 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.

The truth 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.

Using Your 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 separate.

Producing 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.

But you'll also want the information broadcast to the general public. Here are some ideas for telling the world what you've found.

The Media
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.

Working the 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.

You'll need 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.

Don't forget 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.

Sparking Official Investigations
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.

Public 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

January 2003


© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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Copyright © 2001 Purple Berets

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