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Rep. James Lyons Jr. of Andover is wrong. Marian Ryan is not the problem. The Middlesex County district attorney has spent decades as an assistant in that office diligently prosecuting domestic abuse cases.
Attorney General Martha Coakley is wrong, too. State law is not the problem. Massachusetts became a leader in the prevention and prosecution of domestic violence under the leadership of three successive attorneys general, all of whom, including Martha Coakley, graduated to that post from the Middlesex DA’s job.
The impulse to fire someone or to pass a law in the wake of the horrific stabbing death of a 27-year-old mother in Waltham is understandable, but it won’t stop the next such slaying. If a simple personnel change or an amendment to the Massachusetts Abuse Prevention Act could fix what’s wrong with our approach to domestic violence, we could move on to solving human trafficking and global warming.
Violence in the home is among the most challenging of social issues that confront the courts. Perpetrator and victim are in a relationship that one, or often both, may wish to preserve. Police and prosecutors are trained to minimize the chance of further assault but cannot force a victim to pursue the legal protections available to her. Judges are duty bound to err on the side of caution while still preserving the right of the accused to due process. Anyone who thinks that is a simple balancing act has not sat through many restraining order hearings.
Waltham police responded when Jennifer Martel called last Tuesday night to report that she was being assaulted by her boyfriend, Jared Remy, in the townhouse they shared. He was arrested and an emergency restraining order was issued barring him from returning home that night. He showed up as ordered for the scheduled hearing the next day. Martel chose not to seek to renew that protective order.
Should officials have sought to hold Remy anyway, knowing that victims often feel too intimidated to face their abuser in court? Remy’s decision to appear on Wednesday morning indicated that he was not a flight risk, the sole criteria for granting bail. Should prosecutors have sought a dangerousness hearing, given his criminal history and his record of assaulting other women with whom he was involved? It is easy in hindsight to say yes, of course. But it is not clear a judge would have ordered him held, given that Remy had had no involvement with the criminal justice system in the last eight years.
As inadequate a venue as the criminal justice system is for resolving domestic violence cases, it was not so long ago that it did not much care about protecting victims of spousal abuse at all. As it happens, the fatal stabbing of Jennifer Martel came exactly 27 years after the domestic violence murder of another young woman in Massachusetts. The slaying of 22-year-old Pamela Nigro Dunn of Arlington in 1986 prompted particular public outrage because of the remarks of a judge who scolded her for wasting the court’s time with her domestic squabbles and belittled her fear that her husband would kill her, weeks before he did just that.
We do not yet know all the facts about the fatal stabbing of Jennifer Martel. We do know that the system was more responsive to her than it was to Dunn. But Remy’s lawyer is making the kind of remarks that illustrate just how far we still have to go as a society to understand the nature of domestic violence.
Peter Bella, Remy’s attorney, told reporters after his client was ordered held without bail on the murder charge that “I’m not sure anyone really knows what happened, what started this whole issue. We know how it ended. We don’t know how it started.”
What does he think? That she burned his dinner? Talked back to him? Failed to iron his gym shorts? Is somehow responsible for the rage that left her dead on the patio?
The best efforts of the criminal justice system cannot root out the cause of domestic abuse, an individual’s pathological need for power and control over the more vulnerable. That is the problem we have yet to confront. Demanding Marian Ryan’s resignation and ordering a review of domestic violence laws might make us feel better. But only until the next time.