Domestic Violence, He Wrote
April 26, 2000
The Stalking of Kristin, by George Lardner, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995, 320 pp, $21When Kristin Lardner was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in broad daylight on a Boston street on May 30, 1992, it sent shockwaves throughout Massachusetts. Sadly, it wasn't as much because of the act (Massachusetts was numb, because in 1992 women were dying at the hands of "loved ones" at a rate of one every eight days.). The outrage was more for what was discovered in the aftermath of the murder. The Boston Globe and Boston Herald were filled with stories of how the murder would never have happened if the police and the courts would have simply done their jobs. After dealing with his initial grief, Kristin Lardner's father, George, a journalist for 30 years at the Washington Post, sensed there was more to the story and asked his editors if he could dig a little bit. The result was the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and a still-growing list of legislation, triggered in part by Kristin's emblematic story. This harrowing, groundbreaking book is the product of everything that has happened since the day he got the call that every parent dreads. I remember that day, too. I was living in Boston, just a mile or so up Commonwealth Avenue from the site of the murder. I remember walking by a week or so later and being chilled by the sight of the flowers left on the sidewalk in tribute. But now, since reading this book, I know that those flowers, although well-intentioned, aren't the kind of tribute Kristin would have wanted or her father could have settled for. The kind of violence that took Kristin's life will persist if people simply decry the violence, mourn the loss and move on. Lardner's book is the proper tribute as it celebrates his daughter's short life -- filled with her youthful rebellion, her promising development as an artist and her dedication to friends and family. But the book also reveals and rages against the American justice system's dirty little secret -- that the bad guys are being allowed to run the show. And murderer Michael Cartier was as bad as they come. Lardner traces his childhood through foster homes and a string of crimes that included torturing and killing a kitten, injecting blood into a ketchup bottle at a restaurant and beating a former girlfriend. Cartier killed himself after shooting Kristin three times in the head, enraged that she broke off their relationship after just three months. After Kristin was beaten by Cartier, she filed for a restraining order. Even though Cartier broke the order, and was already in violation of parole, no one in the criminal justice system that Kristin put her trust in was able to put it all together and put Cartier back in prison, where he had already spent six months. Unforgivably, two complaints filed by Kristin just weeks before her murder were discovered by Lardner to be "smoldering" on the desks of court officials three weeks after her murder, "waiting to be typed." Had either document been processed, Cartier could have been put in jail, and Kristin would perhaps own a jewelry studio with a friend, as she had planned before her death. Those two oversights are just the tips of an iceberg that Lardner circumscribes in his book. The reason the problem is so immense when viewed under the surface is that domestic violence has traditionally been the black hole of criminal law. Many judges view it as a distasteful "civil matter," police often walk away if a couple seem calmed down when they arrive; even Lardner, in a passage about prominent batterers from the Washington, D.C., area, pulls punches by not naming the batterers. The Stalking of Kristin is also important in debunking popularly held beliefs about the criminal justice system. "The columns of leading newspapers, including my own, are often peppered with talk about how too many minor, first-time offenders are clogging our prison cells," he writes. "In fact, 94 percent of those in state prisons across the country -- which is where most of the inmates are -- are violent or repeat offenders." Lardner also takes issue with the way crime statistics create sympathy for convicted criminals and add to a mind-set that grants great leeway to any criminal who shows signs of wanting therapy or counseling. One oft-quoted statistic is that it costs about the same to house a criminal in jail for a year as it does to send a kid to Harvard for a year. Lardner frames it a different way (underlining what all good journalists know, that statistics, like everything else, are relative) by showing that it costs Americans about $87.60 each per year to keep bad people behind bars -- less, he wryly points out, than it costs for cable TV. And he refers to a New Jersey study that found taxpayers save nearly $40,000 per year per criminal that is kept behind bars unable to commit additional crimes. It all adds up to a powerful message for anyone in the criminal justice system: rehabilitation efforts are not only luxuries we can't afford, but also risks we can't live with. Judges, probation officers and others in the system should focus more on protecting the innocent than on "saving" the lost souls among us. That is Kristin's legacy, as cherished by her father, who has shown the unique courage to turn grief and anger into social progress.