Marie Tessier

The DNA of Violence

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Record Number of Women Victimized by Murderous Ex-Lovers

GRAY, Maine (WOMENSENEWS) -- With groceries in her car, Jennifer Lessard apparently planned to make several quick stops after work before picking up her two school-age sons one afternoon in May. Instead, she became the 13th victim of domestic homicide in Maine this year, part of a murder trend that's on pace to exceed every other year since the state began compiling records in 1971.

In an all-too-common scenario in the United States -- where a woman's risk of being murdered by an intimate partner is highest after leaving an abusive relationship -- the 40-year-old pharmacist attempted to pick up her belongings at the home of a former boyfriend, whom she had recently left.

Lessard was found dead there, with a gunshot wound to the head. Her boyfriend was also dead, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and left a suicide note, according to state police.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of death for women ages 15-44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It is a leading cause of death of pregnant women, mortality research shows. And African American and Native American women are at the highest risk of intimate partner homicide.

Sexual violence is so prevalent that it touches every family in the United States, advocates say.

Estimates show that 272,000 sexual assaults against people age 12 and older occurred in 2006.

Crime Drop Benefits Men Most

Since violent crime rates peaked in the early 1990s men have benefited most from a downward trend that has left Americans safer overall.

In the three decades from 1976 to 2005, the number of men killed by female partners has dropped precipitously, from about 1,300 to 329. But homicides of women by male partners has declined far less, dropping from around 1,500 to about 1,200, figures from the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics show.

Those female homicide figures reached their lowest point of 1,155 in 2004, but climbed slightly to 1,181 in 2005, the latest year available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The bloody trail of those deaths, along with injuries, crisscrosses the nation each year and overshadows women's daily lives.

Nearly one-third of all U.S. women report experiencing violence from a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund.

The impact of violence spreads through families, health-care services and the workplace, and is associated with far higher disease risk.

Women who have experienced domestic violence are 80 percent more likely to have a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease, 60 percent more likely to have asthma and 70 percent more likely to drink heavily than women who have not experienced intimate partner violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Declaring an Emergency

At least one governor is putting the problem on the front burner.

In early June Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a "domestic violence emergency" in his state, where deaths at the hands of a domestic partner nearly tripled to 42 in 2007 from 15 in 2005.

So far in 2008, domestic crime has killed 19 people in Massachusetts, according to Boston-based Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Patrick signed legislation creating statewide guidelines for hospitals treating victims of violence and called for strengthened training of police officers in the state.

Maine is also taking steps, says Lois Galgay Reckitt, a longtime advocate for battered women in the state who serves on the board of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

All police officers will be required to complete domestic violence training next year to be certified, she says, and the plan expands training requirements that are now common in most states.

But while access to crisis services and an informed police response are improving for battered women in Maine and elsewhere, Reckitt says more action is needed.

"We need to start focusing on prosecution of domestic violence offenses as a matter of homicide prevention," says Reckitt, who serves on the board of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. "Incarceration might have an impact, but we are having trouble in Maine getting the prosecution to happen."

Not Enough Programs to Help Women

Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which carries out public health campaigns for the federal Centers for Disease Control, agrees with Reckitt and says health care providers can also do more. "Too few women are screened for violence and offered the help and referrals they need."

Despite the ongoing high level of violence, the 2006 National Crime Victimization Survey found declines in sexual and domestic violence since passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which distributed over $570 million in funding to anti-violence programs across the country this year.

"There's still a sexual assault every two minutes in the United States, but the Violence Against Women Act has helped focus police, prosecutors and judges on the seriousness of the crime," says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "The progress shows that we need to fully fund the programs, because the ones that have been funded are working."

But other leaders in the field challenge the 2006 data and any interpretation of it that suggests sexual violence is ebbing.

"I don't think we can say that violence is declining when the number of people seeking services continues to grow or stay the same," says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver. "It could be that the numbers aren't being counted right, or it could be that women have stopped using the justice system, but the experience in the field is not that women are safer."

Sue Else, executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says the 2006 national survey misses thousands of instances of violence because it is not safe for battered women to respond truthfully to questions about the violence that can permeate -- or threaten -- their lives.

"The National Crime Victimization Survey is not an accurate reflection of what we know about domestic violence prevalence," says Else, which tracked requests for services for one day in 2007, and found that service providers were stretched beyond capacity. "More than 7,700 requests for services went unmet in a 24-hour period in 2007 because there simply weren't enough resources to help them."

Women in college are particularly vulnerable to gender violence. Over the course of a college career between 20 and 25 percent of female students will be sexually assaulted, according to a 2000 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Soler and other advocates share a time-worn perspective on violence against women: Preventing violence means transforming a culture and its institutions.

"Changing attitudes is our greatest long-term challenge," Soler says. "But we are making progress and we can do even more."

Military Fails Another Victim of Sexual Violence

The life stories of Jessica Brakey and Abeer Al-Janabi unfold a half a world apart. Yet the former Air Force Academy cadet and the dead Iraqi girl are both powerful symbols of women's experience of sexual assault. The legal tales of both are curiously juxtaposed this fall in the military's sprawling criminal justice system.

Until recently, Brakey was the only woman to see her sexual assault allegations proceed to a court-martial from widely reported Air Force Academy revelations in 2003, though more than 100 women came forward to report assaults in the previous decade. The charges against Air Force Capt. Joseph J. Harding were dismissed Friday afternoon, however, following a long dispute over rape shield law. Harding attorney David Sheldon says delays in the case "did a disservice not only to Capt. Harding but also the administration of fair justice," according to the Associated Press. Sheldon also represents one of the soldiers charged in the Iraqi case.

Not one person has been convicted of rape from the Air Force Academy reports, though a change of venue to a civilian court in Colorado remains possible in the Harding case. One cadet, still at the academy but his future uncertain, pleaded guilty to "indecent acts" and other military conduct offenses. His sentence: a reprimand and a $2,000 fine.

Three years after the public and Congress demanded reform, sexual assaults remain a persistent fact of life in the military, figures from the Pentagon's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response show. "The system facilitates the crime because it's never punished," says Wendy Murphy, a victim rights attorney who represents Jessica Brakey and her civilian therapist. "They have wanted her case to disappear since the beginning."

Pentagon officials say 546 sexual assaults were reported in the Afghanistan and Iraq war theaters from 2002 through August 2006. The vast majority of reports involved service members as both assailant and victim. Dozens of cases involved a military victim and civilian assailant, and a small fraction involved soldiers assaulting civilians. Worldwide, the number of sexual assaults reported in 2005 involving a U.S. service member as an assailant reached 2,374, including 600 civilian victims. Historically, about one in four sexual assaults is reported in the military, though the reporting rate is climbing since victims gained some anonymity last year, officials and advocates say.

It's amid this persistent violence and failed prosecution that charges arose in Mahmoudiyah, Iraq, against four soldiers and one former soldier in the alleged gang rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Al-Janabi. The soldiers--who await a decision from their Fort Campbell, Kentucky, commander on an investigator's recommendation of court-martial--are also charged with premeditated murder of Abeer's mother, her father, and her younger sister. The discharged man has pleaded not guilty in federal court in Kentucky.

"The numbers of sexual assaults being reported indicates that these individuals are not rogues," says Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, a service and advocacy agency for victims of sexual and domestic violence related to the U.S. military. "These are men who utilized the training and tactics of the armed forces when they stalked this young woman and killed the family, and they were part of a system where there's no intervention or punishment for sexual assault."

The commander's role in deciding on a court-martial and choosing those who judge the accused has been the source of military problems with violence against women, numerous Pentagon and independent investigations have concluded. The vast majority of cases, if punished at all, are handled as personnel issues and kept out of the criminal justice system. Even in the 2 to 3 percent of rape cases that go to court-martial, plea agreements and punishments are lenient.

Fort Campbell officials in particular came under intense scrutiny in 1998 and 1999 following the domestic violence homicides of several Army wives there. A "60 Minutes" investigation featured the base and illustrated a dearth of domestic violence prosecutions throughout the services. As a result of the inquiries, Fort Campbell officials now must refer some domestic violence crimes to the U.S. Attorney.

The Al-Janabi rape and murder case hurdled barriers to justice that face many victims of sexual assault and those ethical investigators and prosecutors working to punish the assailants. The crime occurred this spring in the highly charged setting of the U.S. occupation in Iraq and steady news coverage by Al-Jazeera and other Arab news outlets. A resulting global demand for justice precluded the military's customary secrecy.

"All of this starts with disrespect for women," says Hansen, the victim advocate. "These guys never see a deterrent or a punishment that would require them to change their behavior."

Sexual Assault Pervasive in Military

Victim advocates and military health care leaders say that sexual assault remains a pervasive problem for women serving in all branches of the military, including those deployed overseas.

Their concern about the assaults on female members of the military is especially high now, with the nation at war and the recent removal of four high-ranking officials from their posts at the U.S. Air Force Academy following an investigation of sexual assaults there.

"It's not just the academies. It's not just the Air Force. It's all the services and it's a pervasive part of the culture," says Christine Hansen, executive director of The Miles Foundation, Inc., a victim service and advocacy agency for victims of sexual and domestic violence in the military. "Many women tell me that sexual assault is considered a rite of passage in the service, and they're treated like the black sheep of the family when they ask for accountability."

Military sexual trauma has been identified by Pentagon health care experts as a major deployment and readiness issue. Rape victims often experience post-traumatic stress symptoms such as anxiety, depression and intrusive thoughts, and are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress in other situations, according to military research. Sexual trauma is the subject of an increasing number of studies about workplace safety in the armed forces, according to Pentagon's Web site and health care experts.

Officials last week said they were not able to discover how the issue is being handled in the Iraqi war theater and in and around Afghanistan. Similarly, they could not answer the question of how many assaults have been reported to criminal investigators in recent years.

Air Force legal affairs spokeswoman Valerie Burkes did say, "we do not have a problem with sexual offenses in the Air Force."

A new assessment of risk factors for sexual assault in the military says that 28 percent of female veterans reported sexual assault during their careers, with consistent rates found across eras, according to a report in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. The study found that "officer leadership" played an important role in the military environment and safety of women and that an environment with unwanted sexual behaviors increased the odds of rape -- factors also cited by Pentagon study panels in recent years.

Military sexual trauma even has its own acronym -- MST -- in the Pentagon's health office and in Veterans Affairs offices. Veterans Affairs hospitals have been required for two years to have counseling services available for sexual trauma. Services are provided for women and men.

Military public affairs officials were unable last week to provide any numbers of reported rapes in their ranks, though they say they are researching the question at Women's eNews' request. They also could not answer how many women have been assaulted while deployed in the Middle East or Central Asia.

Twenty-four cases of sexual assault were reported during the first Persian Gulf War deployments in 1990 and 1991, according to the Department of Defense.

Though reports to criminal investigation authorities are difficult to find, a common estimate among advocates and health care experts is about one quarter of women in the military say they have been sexually assaulted during their careers.

In 1996, the Defense Department surveyed women in the military about their experiences in the previous 12 months, and found that 9 percent of women in the Marines, 8 percent of women in the Army, 6 percent of women in the Navy and 4 percent of women in the Air Force had experienced a rape or an attempted rape that year. About 200,000 women serve in the military, so these numbers represent more than 10,000 sexual assaults or attempted assaults each year.

More than 67,000 women veterans, or as much as 29 percent of those served at Veterans Affairs clinics in recent years, say they experienced sexual assault in the military, says Sherri Bauch, a deputy field director for the Women Veterans Health Program. And even those numbers fall far short of a complete count, service providers say. The figures do not cover women veterans who do not use the clinics and would not reflect women who left the service before their enlistment was complete.

"Sexual trauma is something that has happened at all times in history," said Faith Hoffman, the director of the women's center at the veterans hospital in Buffalo. She treats women for sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress. "It's not a new problem, but it is something we can treat, whether the trauma happened yesterday or it happened during the Vietnam War or before. People do not have to live with this secret."

Health care providers and advocates say that many barriers remain to women reporting sexual assault in the military. Hoffman says that women tell her that they will not even answer "yes" to a screening question if it means their record will reflect that they were raped.

The biggest ongoing problem for sexual assault in the military is the lack of confidentiality, advocates say. Any report to a nurse, doctor, counselor or police officer within the military is something that can be or must be reported to a commander. That can lead to trouble for a victim. Even attempts to hold an offender accountable can be detrimental if a victim is vulnerable to a disciplinary infraction such as those for alcohol, drugs, fraternization or adultery. Such a problem arose with one cadet at the Air Force Academy who was disciplined for having sex after she reported an assault.

"It's difficult for any victim of sexual assault to come forward, even in the best circumstances," Hansen says. "Women in the military do not feel safe to say this happened to them, especially if it means the information is going to their commander."

The entire military criminal justice system is worlds apart from the civilian world, too, advocates and health officials say. The most important difference is that decisions about investigation and prosecution are made within the chain of command, not by an adversarial outside agency like a prosecutor's office. This leaves commanders with an inherent conflict of interest: On the one hand they are responsible for seeking justice for crimes; on the other, they are bound as leaders to protect the soldiers and sailors they value and to maintain good morale in their units. This can be difficult when an allegation involves an otherwise valuable or likeable serviceman.

"These are highly educated military strategists making decisions, not people trained in rape crisis intervention," Hansen says. "There's an inherent conflict of interest that may seriously deter them from holding offenders accountable."

The issue of consent to a sexual encounter is also more complicated in military situations than in civilian life because of the hierarchy of military command, says Gene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a private group. People in the service are intensely trained to follow orders, so it is problematic for a servicewoman to say "no" to a superior, he says.

"It's a rigid hierarchy," he explains. "You're talking about people who are used to doing what they're told."

Even as problems remain, leaders of women's programs within the Veterans Affairs system say they are working hard to advocate for more widespread sexual trauma treatment programs.

"We are seeing a lot of new cases coming in from women's experience being triggered by the stories at the Air Force Academy and of the war," says Hoffman of the Buffalo VA center. "With military sexual trauma counseling we have the ability and the resources now to help women heal."

Marie Tessier is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about violence against women.

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