The San Francisco Chronicle’s recent series on domestic violence movingly portrays the tragic murder of Nadine Nunes at the hands of her ex-husband Todd Vernon, who also killed his three children. However, there is no credible evidence to support the series' principal contention that "men are murdering their partners in increasing numbers." The only evidence offered is the vague assertion of a local domestic violence advocate. In place of facts and research the series substitutes emotion, ominous references to firearms, and the implication that any normal guy becomes a homicidal maniac the moment he can't find a job.
Contrary to alarmist claims, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer reports that the number of domestic violence-related calls for assistance statewide dropped almost 20% from 1993 to 2003. Similarly, U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that the number of violent crimes by intimate partners against females nationwide declined from 1993 to 2001, the last year for which statistics are available. According to Emergency Room data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and the DOJ, domestic violence accounts for only 1% of women’s injuries, well behind accidental falls, motor vehicle accidents, and even animal bites.
DOJ statistics show that roughly 1,300 women are murdered by intimates each year. Yet domestic homicide is hardly a one-way street. There are 500 men murdered each year by female intimates, excluding those killings deemed to be in self-defense. Moreover, evidence suggests that there are actually as many wives and girlfriends who murder their male partners as vice versa.
Warren Farrell, a high profile expert witness in domestic violence cases, has delineated a number of "blinders" which have served to disguise the murder of male intimates.
For one, women generally use less detectable methods to murder intimates than men do, including poisonings, which are often mistakenly recorded as “heart attacks” or “accidents.”
Also, women are much more likely than men to convince their extramarital intimates to do the killing, or to use contract killers, who often disguise murders as accidents or suicides. If the surrogate killer is caught the murder is categorized as a "multiple offender" killing. For example, the murder of Wayne Pearce of Escondido, California, which a jury determined was committed at the behest of his estranged wife, is not categorized as an intimate partner homicide in official statistics because she hired two 15 year-olds to do the killing for her.
In addition, there are five times as many unsolved murders of men as there are of women. If only a small percentage of these murders are really intimate partner homicides, men would comprise over 40% of all intimate murder victims. This is consistent with the DOJ’s survey Murder in Families, which analyzed 10,000 cases and found that women make up over 40 percent of those charged in familial murders.
Advocates for battered women often claim that women who kill male intimates usually do so in self-defense. However, in the most comprehensive study of female homicides ever conducted, criminologist Coramae Richey Mann found that 60% of female murders of male intimates were preplanned, and 70% of the killings were done while the victim was asleep, bound, helpless or inebriated.
There is no shortage of female Todd Vernons, if only we chose to see them. Socorro Caro abused her husband Xavier, a prominent Northridge, California rheumatologist, for years, once assaulting him so badly he had to have surgery to regain his sight in one eye. Later Socorro shot and killed three of their four children, the murder spree ending only because she ran out of bullets. The judge in the case said that the children had been used by Socorro against her husband as "sacrificial symbolic pawns of a failed marital relationship."
Convicted Texas murderess Susan Wright stabbed her husband 193 times while he was bound at the hands and legs. Michigan educator Nancy Seaman ambushed and killed her husband with a hatchet and then claimed to be an abused wife, a claim the jury rejected, convicting her of first degree premeditated murder. Convicted Texas killer Clara Harris ran her husband down in her Mercedes as the fallen man’s daughter begged her not to kill her father. Does the fact that the perpetrators were female mean these murders are any less tragic than the ones committed by Todd Vernon?
Three decades of studies clearly establish that the violence in abusive relationships is often initiated by women, and that women are responsible for a substantial portion of domestic violence at all levels of severity. Pretending that only men abuse gives women license to abuse and creates more violent relationships.
In considering the federal Violence Against Women Act, which is up for five-year renewal this year, as well as in law-enforcement policies and the way batterers’ treatment and couples counseling are conducted, alarmist, anti-male politics must be replaced by real-world approaches based on the totality of intimate-partner violence.
This column was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle (4/8/05). It was written in response to the series Traces of Danger Beneath the Calm and Deadly Warning, (San Francisco Chronicle, 3/13/05).
April 13, 2005