Tragedy may raise awareness of abuse THE ARREST OF O. J. SIMPSON

June 19, 1994|By Ann LoLordo and Bruce Reid | Ann LoLordo and Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writers

The tragedy surrounding O. J. Simpson's arrest on murder charges in the death of his estranged wife is expected to heighten community awareness about domestic violence and the need for the criminal justice system to deal sternly with spouse abusers, experts in the field said yesterday.

Although it has been five years since Mr. Simpson pleaded no contest in court to charges of beating his wife, Nicole, the couple's past troubles have been replayed in the national media, discussed by Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti and even referred to by the football Hall-of-Famer himself in a letter read publicly as he eluded police Friday.

"There are too many parts of our society that just don't take this seriously, still after all this time," said Betty Fisher, executive director of Haven Hills, a domestic violence program in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. ". . . This may be the thing that gets people to say this is really a problem."

The stunning events of last week in which Mr. Simpson was a suspect, then charged with two murders and finally, a fugitive, riveted the nation's attention on an American hero and an American problem -- spousal abuse.

The attention now must be turned into action, said Jann Jackson, associate director of the House of Ruth in Baltimore, which provides shelter for abused women, legal counseling and counseling for abusers.

"We can turn this into a Tonya Harding, tortured media event, or we can use it as a wake-up call," said Ms. Jackson, who is also chairwoman of the Maryland Alliance Against Family Violence. "We as a culture are still in the shock and disbelief stage. There's a lot of sympathy for O. J. . . . While we are watching our hero fall . . . the real tragedy is a woman has lost her life."

For domestic violence counselors and professionals from California to Maryland, Mr. Simpson's denial that he beat his wife in January 1989, his feeling expressed in the public letter that he had at times felt like "a battered husband," and his protestations of love were too familiar.

At the Haven Hills shelter in the San Fernando Valley, eight or nine women clients were watching television as Mr. Simpson's friend, Robert Kardashian, read a letter from the television sportscaster in which he talked about his relationship with his former wife.

"Somebody yelled out, 'You got to hear this,' " recounted Mrs. Fisher, the executive director. "The reaction was incredible, like, 'Where have we heard this before?' "

What also was all too familiar to domestic violence experts and the women at Haven Hills was the punishment Mr. Simpson received after the 1989 incident.

Prosecutors asked for a month in jail because of the severity of the beating of Mrs. Simpson and an intensive yearlong therapy ** program for battering husbands.

Instead, a judge fined Mr. Simpson $200 and ordered him to make a $500 donation to a battered women's shelter and perform 120 hours of community service. Mr. Simpson also was permitted to receive counseling over the phone with a psychiatrist of his choice.

The police visit to the Simpsons' home in 1989 was the ninth time Mrs. Simpson had reported being abused by her husband.

The abuse apparently continued until even this year. The Boston Globe quoted police as saying that they frequently were called to Mrs. Simpson's Brentwood condominium in the past six months to intervene in disputes.

"I believe Joe Jones in Ottumwa, Iowa, gets very similar treatment because courts don't take it as a life-and-death issue," said Rita Smith, coordinator of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "The punishment doesn't equal the violence that was displayed. So the message is it's not a big deal."

In Baltimore, for example, city police received 60,000 911 calls related to domestic violence last year. Of those, there were 3,300 arrests, but only 200 men received jail time, she said.

Some 600 men were ordered to undergo counseling for abusers at the House of Ruth last year, Ms. Jackson said, but only 60 percent completed the counseling -- and there was little or no punishment by the courts for dropping out.

"What's tragic about [domestic violence] is the cycle plays out unless the community intervenes," said Kathryn Shulman, director of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, which works on domestic violence, housing and civil rights. "The intervention is critical and it can save lives. We know how to intervene as a society. But in order to intervene, all parts of the community have to be saying the same thing -- which is domestic violence is unacceptable."

As part of President Clinton's crime bill, domestic violence against women has been established as a civil rights violation.

Supporters of the bill -- which includes the Violence Against Women Act -- hope to get final approval before Congress leaves for a July 4 recess.

The act includes provisions that would prevent people convicted of domestic abuse from obtaining firearms, provide millions of dollars to aid victims of abuse, and set up a national hot line for victims.

A nationwide campaign of television and radio ads on domestic violence is set to begin this month, according to Ms. Jackson. The ads are meant to encourage people to stop considering domestic violence as dark family secrets, but rather crimes of violence like any others.

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