Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Media’s Role in Educating the Public on Domestic Violence Related Issues

In an article in the July 5th Kennebec Journal journalist Amy Calder writes that we have had two recent domestic violence incidents here in Maine that claimed the lives of six people. HELLO! There have been three domestic violence incidents that took the lives of seven people not two incidents that took the lives of six people. Oh yeah, but to the media consider one of the incidents “domestic violence related” because that victim was a man killed by his wife. Here in Maine using the words “domestic violence related” when a man is murdered by his intimate partner is taboo for the media.

One of the major stumbling blocks battered women’s advocates faced back in the early days of bringing attention to domestic violence against women was proving the need for services and legal protections for female victims of domestic violence. Without research, public awareness and legislative action there would be no state and federally funded services or laws to protect women and children. The media has played and continues to play a key role in changing society’s understanding and awareness of domestic violence against women.

When the media does not characterize an incident of domestic violence for what it is an opportunity to educate the public is lost. In 1997 the Maine legislature charged the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse with the task of establishing a Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel to review the deaths of persons who are killed by family and household members. The Panel reviews these tragedies in order to recommend system changes that could further prevent deaths.

In the 8th Report of the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel (2008) the Panel recommended that when the media reports on incidents of domestic violence they should clearly name it as such and whenever appropriate provide information about services available in the community. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that this particular recommendation or ones similar to it have been made repeatedly over the years by this Panel in an effort to continue to bring more public awareness to this issue.

The media seems to understand the importance of including the words “domestic violence” in their articles about women killed by their family or household members. Most news story written in Maine newspapers on domestic violence related homicides of women include a quote or two from a representative of a local domestic violence shelter, the contact number to reach the program and the words “domestic violence” at least one time. In one article I read about the recent murder suicide in Winslow the words “domestic violence” came up eight times in the story.

In the news story that Amy Calder wrote she left out the domestic violence related homicide of a man that was also murdered last month. On June 13th Richard Jeskey, age 53, was found naked, bloody and dead in the bathtub of his Bangor, Maine apartment that he shared with his second wife, Roxanne. Roxanne admitted to assaulting her husband with pliers, a box cutter and a plastic baseball bat in a fit of jealousy over him talking to his ex-girlfriend on the phone. The medical examiner found extensive multiple blunt and sharp force injuries to Richard’s body which included the loss of an eye, rectal wounds, rib and nose fractures and internal hemorrhage from an instrument(s) pushed through his scrotum into his abdomen. There was also evidence that he was strangled with sufficient force to break the hyoid bone of his neck. Roxanne told the police that after she attacked Richard and while he was still in the tub she laid down on the couch to take a nap.

Ten days or more after she murdered him the news reported that she claimed she killed Richard in self defense. The judge presiding over her arraignment assigned pro bono attorneys from two law firms to her case. But that shouldn’t have precluded the media from using the words “domestic violence” in their initial news reports because it was still a domestic violence related murder.

None of the news reports I read of this man’s macabre murder included the words “domestic violence” as they should have given how important it is to educate the public on these matters. There was quite a lively discussion about the exclusion of those words on the comment board at the Bangor Daily News (BDN) website. Some people also shared what they knew about the couple and one person in particular shared some information about Roxanne’s physical and mental health conditions. For some odd reason only known to the BDN the comment about Roxanne’s conditions was removed within seconds of being submitted. Another domestic violence advocate and I got into a heated discussion about what I perceive to be a lack of caring, services and awareness for male victims. She accused me more than once of spreading lies and misinformation. I have spoken with thousands of male victims over the last eleven years on our helpline so I think I know a little more about how male victims than the average battered women’s advocate.

The blatant omission of the use of the words “domestic violence” in news stories of men murdered by their intimate partners is not an anomaly. The media and domestic violence advocates in Maine have a long history of failing to educate the public on the fact that men are victims of domestic violence too.

The first domestic violence related homicide of 2009 was that of Christopher Spampinato, age 39. Christopher was an armed forces veteran living in Wells, Maine. At the time of his murder, his estranged wife, Kimberly Spampinato, was out on bail for charges stemming from a prior alleged domestic assault against him. She was under court order to have no contact with him. Kimberly Spampinato entered the apartment she and her husband once shared and while he slept she doused Christopher with gasoline then using rolled up newspapers and a lighter she set him afire. She was reportedly angry with him because he was ending their relationship. Christopher suffered burns over 85% of his body and died at a hospital in Boston ten days later. Kimberly eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. The newspapers described this “domestic violence” related murder as the “first homicide” of the year.

Jen Sibley, an outreach coordinator with Family Crisis Services, was interviewed about this murder and she is quoted as saying, “Male victims of domestic violence, as is alleged in the October case of the Spampinatos, remain comparatively rare…. Women are the victims in about 9 out of 10 domestic violence cases that the agency is involved in. However, she said her agency’s workers and the police are sensitive to the fact that every situation is different. Sibley noted that police in Maine are required to have “’predominant aggressor”’ training…that helps them sort out who is the victim in domestic violence cases.”

In 2008 Winston George was cut repeatedly about the head with a knife, hog-tied from his ankles to his neck and strangled. Additionally, a plastic bag was placed over his head and cinched tightly suffocating him. When his body was discovered he had an empty rum bottle lodged in his throat. His wife, Darlene George, age 45, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for orchestrating the murder and her brother, Jeffrey Williams, age 47, received a life sentence for his role in the murder. Darlene’s long time lover, Rennie Cassimy, age 49, was sentenced to eight years in prison as part of a plea agreement. The Prosecutors said that Darlene feared that her husband was going to file for divorce and she didn’t want to lose the three properties they owned in Orchard Beach, Brooklyn and Trinidad.

In 2005 the body of Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Severance, age 24, from Lee, Maine was found clad only in his boxer shorts in a pond in San Agelo, Texas. The autopsy revealed that he was poisoned with drugs that are normally used by veterinarians on animals. Wendi Davidson, age 28, who was a veterinarian and his wife of four months, was charged with his murder. In order to hide the murder Wendy stabbed her husband 41 times post mortem to release the gases from his decomposing body and then weighted it down with car parts and cinder blocks to keep it underwater. Wendi Davidson plead no contest to the murder charge and received 25 years in prison.

In 2004 Amy Dugas (now Pelletier) was indicted for the death of her husband Mark Dugas. Amy admitted to stabbing her husband to death with a foot long kitchen knife, however, she claimed it was in self defense. She was acquitted of Mark’s murder in 2005 and later that year she stood trial for four counts of domestic assault she perpetrated against her husband and a police officer in an incident that occurred four months prior to her husband’s murder. Jurors were not told about the assault charges against her during her murder trial. She was convicted on all four counts. She was ordered to serve a few months jail time and once she got out, while on probation, the court allowed her to move to Tennessee. She was arrested once again in Tennessee for domestic assault against her then boyfriend and extradited to Maine. While in jail she met up with her third husband, Brian Pelletier, who was a guard at the jail. Brian moved with Amy to Tennessee and three weeks after they were married Amy was arrested again for domestic assault against her new husband.

In the first domestic violence related murder of 2001 Christopher Ingraham, age 23, was shot execution style while he lay sleeping. His girlfriend and the mother of his four month old son, Katrina Bridges, age 20 was charged with his murder. At the trial the medical examiner described how the bullet cut through his scalp and exited under his eye. He reported that Christopher did not die immediately, he lay on the bed, suffering, bleeding, vomiting and dying for approximately 12 hours and Bridges did nothing to help him. The police found Christopher breathing but unconscious and unresponsive. There were reports that Christopher had wanted to end the relationship with Bridges. Bridges claimed at trial that two men killed Christopher and then kidnapped her and the infant. The jury took just three and one-half hours to convict Bridges of murder.

None of the news stories on these tragic domestic violence related murders have done anything to educate the public about domestic violence as the Panel recommends. The quote from the domestic violence advocate about the Spampinato murder did more to harm male victims than educate the public.

Many battered women’s lives have been saved as a direct result of the services available to help them escape abusive relationships and society’s awareness of the problem. It’s time for the public to be educated on the whole truth not just half truths.


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  2. Thanks for sharing and for reminding me of how important the work we do really is.