Another “troubled marriage”: Domestic violence and the failures of legal response

—Leigh Goodmark

Melissa Davis could have prevented her husband, Daren Ruffin, from stabbing her to death last week. At least that’s the story the Baltimore Sun would have you believe. On January 24, the Baltimore Sun reported, Davis refused to testify against her husband during his January 8 trial for assaulting her, and now she’s dead. It’s that simple.

Except that it’s not that simple at all. Daren Ruffin had been repeatedly arrested and charged with abusing his wife, but those arrests had not deterred him from continuing his violence. Ruffin had just been arrested and released on his own recognizance when he returned to the apartment that the couple shared and killed his wife. A conviction might not have stopped him either; in fact, it’s possible that a conviction would have made him increase his violence against Davis. To suggest, however, that Davis could somehow have prevented her own death by simply testifying against her husband both ignores the ineffectiveness of the legal response to domestic violence and inappropriately places the blame for her death on Melissa Davis’ shoulders.

Ruffin’s actions reflect what some advocates for women subjected to abuse have known for some time—that while the legal system can help some women, the intervention of the criminal justice system means little to an abuser determined to hurt or kill his partner. Despite the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars into the criminal justice system since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, rates of domestic violence decreased only as much as the overall crime rate between 1994 and 2000, and less than the decrease in the overall crime rate from 2001 to 2010. Strict arrest and prosecution policies have increased the number of people arrested for domestic violence in some jurisdictions, but have not increased the conviction rate or the length of sentences served for domestic violence crimes.

There are numerous stories about the women who do everything “right”: who get protective orders, who call police, who participate in prosecution, and who still end up dead. Alison Kirby was one of those women. In March 2006, Kirby was granted a protective order after her boyfriend, Christopher McCann threatened her with violence.  On May 1, 2006, McCann followed Kirby to a Wal-Mart and stabbed her twelve times in the head, face, and arms.

Lilia Blandin was another. On October 30, 2011, Lilia Blandin pressed charges against her husband, Avery, after he punched her in the mouth and stomach. In December 2011, Avery Blandin stabbed his wife to death. Even incarceration isn’t an absolute guarantee of safety. In October 2008, Robert Ridley left the halfway house to which he had been sent to await his sentencing for setting fire to the couch in the apartment of his girlfriend, Tiffany Gates, went to Gates’ apartment, and stabbed her to death while US Marshals were waiting outside for backup before going in to help.

The legal system simply cannot guarantee safety for every woman subjected to abuse, and it does a disservice to all women subjected to abuse when we pretend that if she had just cooperated with police or prosecutors, gotten a protective order, or otherwise invoked the law, she would have been just fine.

If Melissa Davis had testified in the trial against her husband, there is no guarantee that he would have been convicted; if convicted, he would likely have been sentenced to probation. If he had received jail time, it would have been minimal at best. He might have been sentenced to batterer intervention counseling, the results of which, despite the efforts of highly trained and dedicated counselors, have been decidedly mixed, according to a roundtable convened by the Family Violence Prevention Fund and the National Institute of Justice. For some women, batterer intervention programs only exacerbate an already bad situation, making their partners angrier and more vindictive.

The reality is that cooperating with police and prosecutors is not a guarantee of safety for women subjected to abuse. To suggest that the legal system would have saved Melissa Davis if only she had cooperated with prosecutors is unfair and wrong. We don’t have foolproof responses to domestic violence, and we have been shortsighted in assuming that the legal system will safeguard women subjected to abuse. We need to both improve the legal response and to look beyond it to find ways to help women subjected to abuse achieve safety. Until we have engaged in these efforts, women like Melissa Davis will continue to be killed through no fault of their own.

Leigh Goodmark is Associate Professor of Law, Director of Clinical Education, and Co-Director of the Center on Applied Feminism at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She is the author of A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System (NYU Press, 2011).