Unequal Protection in Justice System Reviews of Fatalities

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Many U.S. states support domestic-violence fatality review committees. These committees, which typically include public officials and volunteers, work under specific legislation and executive orders addressing domestic-violence fatality reviews.^ Domestic violence fatality review committees heighten public scrutiny primarily of homicides of women. More than three times as many men are victims of homicide as are women. Domestic violence fatality review committees exacerbate unequal protection for men against homicide. They do so in the circumstances of relatively little public concern about injuries to men and deeply entrenched anti-men gender bias in domestic-violence research and policy.

The effective anti-men gender bias of domestic-violence fatality reviews is readily apparent. The U.S. Department of Justice publishes the National Institute of Justice Journal to disseminate important, independent scholarly work. In 2003, the National Institute of Justice Journal contained Neil Websdale’s influential article, Reviewing Domestic Violence Deaths. The first article in that journal offered an overview of “intimate-partner homicide.” It observed:

Neil Websdale recommends the use of fatality reviews as a way to assess where our criminal justice and social services systems fail in preventing homicides. Although the focus of his article is on the utility of these reviews in protecting women against homicide, the same technique could be used to review the deaths of men who are murdered (the largest category of homicide victims). Certainly the viability of these reviews to help reduce or prevent all forms of homicide— not just those committed by intimate partners—should be explored.^

The U.S. National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) provides a reasonable basis for factual review of all homicides, including domestic violence homicides. Domestic violence fatality reviews ignore the vast majority of homicides in which the dead are men.

Domestic-violence fatality review committees have worked in ways prone to bias. Definitions of the fatalities of concern in these reviews range even wider than the definition of domestic violence in state laws. Some focus on intimate-partner fatalities. A woman hiring a man to kill a woman who was sleeping with the first woman’s boyfriend isn’t generally considered domestic violence under state law. But that’s included in the scope of domestic-violence fatality review in Arizona and North Dakota. Some fatality reviews include incidents of near fatalities. A Texas Council of Family Violence report, entitled Honoring Texas Victims: Family Violence Fatalities, excludes men killed by family violence. Reviews usually don’t describe a systematic, non-biased procedure for selecting cases for review. Reports commonly included heart-wrenching stories of women fatally killed by their intimate partners. Reviews are commonly combined with proposals for strengthening domestic violence legislation. Domestic-violence fatality reviews reflect the general failings of public deliberation about domestic violence.

Public discussion of domestic violence has obscured fundamental facts about domestic violence and about the justice system. Men vastly predominate among victims of homicides. For decades across widely different forms of public discourse, domestic violence against women has been sensationalized and domestic violence against men, ignored. Because 40% of domestic-violence fatalities occur in homicide-suicide incidents, domestic-violence fatalities are relatively difficult to deter with harshly punitive state action. Relatively little concern about the vast majority of homicides of men reflects deeply entrenched anti-men gender bias and lack of equal protection for men in justice system activity.

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