Why Batterers So Often Go Free

Article excerpt

WHEN THE O.J. VERDICT WAS read to a rapt and riven nation, one woman in Madison Wis., felt all over again the barrel of a gun pressed to her temple. Two months after Nicole Brown Simpson was brutally murdered, Jennifer, as she asks to be called, found herself just a "fraction from death." She had told her husband she wanted to end their marriage of 20 years. Four days later, "out of the sky blue" he covered her face with his hands, grabbed a loaded pistol from the night stand, held it to her head and said, "You go call the f---ing cops. You know what happened to Nicole, so go call your f---ing cops." Jennifer fled to a shelter for battered women the next morning. Though her husband begged her to come home--initially tracking her whereabouts by monitoring police radios--she has never returned. "I have lived this case in Nicole's shoes," says Jennifer. "My husband is very charming, a PR man like you would not believe." Jennifer is convinced that if he had pulled the trigger that night, he would be walking free today.

O.J.'s acquittal resonated loudly among those blacks who have experienced decades of injustice in the criminal justice system.:Yet women and victim advocates say the quieter message is equally dire: men can beat their wives, perhaps even kill them, and go unpunished. About 1.8 million women are abused every year--one every 16 seconds, according to Murray Straus, codirector of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Lab. "O.J." has already entered the lexicon as a verb for torture. Before Nicole's death, abusers commonly said, "`Bitch, I'm going to kill you;," says Rob Schroeder, director of Safespace, a public shelter in Miami. "Now they,re saying ,Bitch, I'm going to O.J. you,." A Boston woman told shelter workers her husband branded her leg with a hot iron, threatening to out-O.J. OJ. And one Orange County, Calif., license plate was framed with a personal warning: "If O.J. walks, my ex-wife better start running." Abuse experts worry that Simpson's release may force victims to retreat into their private hell, discouraging them from seeking legal help. Standing in the dark just minutes from Simpson's Rockingham-estate celebration party, Denise Brown told a gathering of candle-carrying protesters the verdict was saying, "You can rape, you can stalk, you can kill, and it's quite all right."

Prelude to murder: How did the panel of two men and 10 women so swiftly dismiss O.J.'s violent past as a prelude to murder? There were police reports of a half-clothed Nicole hiding in fear by her door. There were Nicole's haunting souvenirs in the safe-deposit box--photos of her bruised face, O.J.'s tortured apology, a will naming her middle sister, Dominique, as guardian of her children. "It's like writing: In the event of my death," said prosecutor Marcia Clark in her closing statements. "She knew. He's going to kill me."

One answer may lie, ironically, in the gender of the jurors. Jury studies show that women have a particularly hard time sympathizing with battered women who bring their attackers to court. Female jurors are more likely than men to blame the accuser for her injuries. They tend to comb the testimony for any indication why this unsettling woman before them is exaggerating--why she could never be them. "It's too scary for many women to realize they, too, are vulnerable to being victimized," says Joan Zorza, senior attorney at New York's National Center on Women and Family Law, "so they think it's her fault. " If gender biases were not enough to keep the jury skeptical, Nicole was also rich. She owned a condo, a flashy car and sexy clothes. She wasn't trapped by poverty, says Ann Jones, author of "Next Time She'll Be Dead," a book about battering. She could, less affluent women may think, have bought herself a bodyguard. …