The Forgotten Issue

October 09, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

On a typical day, the help line at the Howard County Domestic Violence Center rings about once every hour. The woman on the other end of the line -- it's invariably a woman -- asks for help. One call an hour, 24 a day, may not sound like much, but over a year it adds up to almost 9,000 calls, ranging from requests for counseling to urgent cries for help.

Last week, however, after a jury of 10 women and two men acquitted O.J. Simpson in the murder of his ex-wife and a friend, the calls were quite different. Seven women called in one afternoon, says executive director Luellen Matthews, all saying the same thing: "I'm angry and I want to know what I can do."

These women had not been battered, Ms. Matthews said. But the not-guilty verdict in the O.J. trial had moved them and proved to Ms. Matthews that the trial, regardless of its outcome, had helped to raise awareness of a difficult issue.

In June 1994, when Mr. Simpson was arrested in the double slaying of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, it looked as if domestic violence would dominate the trial.

Nicole Brown Simpson was badly beaten by O.J. Simpson in 1989. He was ordered to get counseling, which he did -- by telephone. There were repeated calls to police for assistance over the years, and Ms. Simpson told friends she thought her husband would kill her one day. Prosecutor Marcia Clark ended her closing argument with a tape of a frantic call to 911 and photos of a battered Nicole Simpson.

But in interviews, jurors have said the evidence about domestic violence was less important to them than testimony about sloppy police work, the gloves that didn't fit and Mark Furhman's racism.

"The domestic violence issue did get lost," Ms. Matthews says, then amends: "For the jury, it got lost. Remember how some people used to call rape a crime of passion? Now they say domestic violence is a crime of passion. Well I say horse manure. It's a crime of violence."

And a depressingly ordinary one at that. According to one advocacy group, the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence, 10 women are killed by their partners every day. (Other estimates put the number of deaths lower, at 1,500 annually, with 2 million women affected by domestic violence overall.) Of all the women slain annually in the United States, 42 percent are killed by spouses or boyfriends.

Consider last week in Maryland: A Joppatowne man killed his girlfriend, then shot himself fatally in the head. And in Howard County, a man received the death penalty for killing his former fiancee and another woman.

These statistics and stories are numbingly familiar to people like Cindy Bailey, clinical director of the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Center Inc. in Baltimore County. In the context of her work, the Simpson trial couldn't have been more ordinary.

"For us, it was the same ol'-same ol'," Ms. Bailey says, when asked about the trial and the verdict. "The focus on race is almost a smoke screen."

One or two callers mentioned the verdict, she says, and men in the center's counseling groups talked about it. "Fortunately, the guys seem to understand that if they were in the same situation, it would probably have a different outcome."

The trial also is thought to have helped in other ways, prompting more women to seek protection orders or simply to identify themselves as victims.

"Battered women should not take away from this that there's no help for them, and no justice for batterers," says Jacquelyn Adams, Anna D. Wolfe endowed professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University. "In Baltimore, there's a real commitment on the part of the police and the mayor's office to address the issue and make sure batterers are arrested, and [ordered] into treatment."

She also is encouraged by recent articles in Sports Illustrated and People, discussing athletes and domestic violence. "Before the O.J. Simpson trial, you never would have seen that," she says.

The bittersweet hope remains that the trial will "do" for domestic violence what the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation did for sexual harassment. But not until people begin to see domestic violence as a systemic and cultural problem instead of one that plagues individual relationships, Ms. Bailey says.

"This is about sexism and class," she says. "Domestic violence is a symptom of sexism run amok, of women seen as sexual objects and property. And it's still very pervasive in our society."

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