Battered Justice

By Meier, Joan | The Washington Monthly, May 1987 | Go to article overview
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Battered Justice

Meier, Joan, The Washington Monthly


Last August in Somerville,Massachusetts, Pamela Nigro-Dunn was coming home from work and got off the bus at the stop where her mother met her each day. A man drove up and insisted Nigro-Dunn get into his car. When she and her mother resisted, he threw mace into her mother's face. Then he shot Pamela, who was five months pregnant, in the abdomen and dragged her into the car. Her body was found in a garbage dump nine hours later. She had been shot, strangled, and stabbed. The murderer was arrested three months later in Florida. He was her husband.

Roughly 1,350 women were killed by theirspouses, ex-spouses, or boyfriends in 1985. They were the victims of the most extreme form of wife battering but represent only a fraction of those who have suffered from what appears to be an epidemic of violence within marriages. National surveys have suggested that as many as one out of four married couples endure at least one act of serious violence during their marriage.

This domestic violence is one-sided: 85-95 percentof assault victims and two-thirds of domestic murder victims are women. And it usually is not an isolated event but part of a pattern of escalating violence. Where there has been murder, there has usually been a history of beating. Consequently, many killings were predictable and could have been stopped. In most cases, the victims had brought their abusers' earlier assaults to the attention of the police, prosecutors, or courts. Pamela Nigro-Dunn had been to court four times trying to stop her husband's attacks before she was murdered. She received a restraining order, but the judge refused to give her police protection. Similarly, the murder of Leedonyell Williams in Washington, D.C., this past summer was committed the day after charges against her attacker were dropped. One Minneapolis study found that in 85 percent of spousal murder cases there had been prior contact with the police; in 50 percent they had been called at least five times in the preceding two years.

Many people are aware that wife-beating is aproblem. But few are aware of the shocking way that violence is ignored by the criminal justice system. When called for help, police rarely make arrests. When they do, prosecutors rarely bring charges. And when cases are brought to court, judges too often have the attitude of Paul Heffernan, the Massachusetts judge who was sitting on the bench when Pamela Nigro-Dunn requested help.

In the first affidavit Pamela filed, just sixweeks after her wedding, she stated, "I'm a prisoner in my apartment. He locks me in and takes the phone cord out. He chocked me and threatened to kill me if I try to leave. He made me work only where he works. . . . My life is in danger so long as he is around.'

Pamela asked Heffernan to order Paul Dunnout of the apartment, but the judge refused and then asked her, "Did he demonstrate this type of behavior before you married him?' presumably reasoning that, if the husband had hit her before they were married, she was not entitled to police protection if she was beaten--however badly-- after she was married. Pamela moved out.

Five days later, she returned to court to obtaina police escort so she could return to the apartment for her clothes. "I don't think it's the role of this Court to decide down to each piece of underwear who owns what,' Heffernan said. "This is pretty trivial . . .. This court has a lot more serious matters to contend with. We're doing a terrible disservice to the taxpayers here.' Heffernan then turned to her husband and said, "You want to gnaw on her and she on you fine, but let's not do it at the taxpayers' expense.'

Pamela moved in with her parents, but afterpressure from Paul to return and promises that he'd reform, she reconciled with him for several weeks. The abuse resumed. She didn't go back to court to seek further protection. Why would she?

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