Finally, outrage over Rice assault [Commentary]

A video showing Ray Rice knocking out his child's mother has led to his dismissal from the Ravens

September 08, 2014|By Casey Gwinn

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Baltimore Ravens have been taking a great deal of heat for their lenient treatment of running back Ray Rice for punching his then fiancée (now wife) in February 2014. Now, with the video of the actual assault circulating on the Internet, the heat has intensified, with the Ravens releasing him from the team, even though the facts of the case, already known to the Ravens and the NFL, have not changed.

Ray Rice is seen in the video knocking Janay Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator and then dragging her lifeless body into the hall, where he eventually props her against a wall. It appears to be a clear felony assault — closed fist to the head — with no mitigating evidence and no defense.

Two questions come to mind. First, who else is to blame for the initial handling of Mr. Rice's case besides Roger Goodell? Second, why do we all need a videotape to get outraged?

On the first point, Mr. Goodell is taking the most heat, but there are others to blame for Ray Rice avoiding prison time and, until the video surfaced, the loss of his NFL career.

Atlantic County Prosecutor James McClain had the video and still made the decision to let Ray Rice avoid a criminal conviction by allowing him to enter a diversion program that, if successfully completed, could wipe clean Mr. Rice's record. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie picked Mr. McClain to be his tough on crime prosecutor in Atlantic City just weeks after Mr. McClain clearly demonstrated he is anything but tough on domestic violence by giving Mr. Rice a pre-trial diversion offer.

We should not ignore the judge in the Ray Rice case, either. New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michael Donio could and should have rejected the plea deal made by Prosecutor McClain. Judge Donio had the power to reject any plea deal, and he too chose to minimize the felony conduct of Ray Rice.

The NFL has failed to treat domestic violence seriously for more than a decade. USA Today has reported that since January 2000, 77 players have been involved in 85 domestic violence incidents. The NFL suspended six players for one game each, and Mr. Rice now was the second player to be suspended for two games.

It is clear that the higher profile you are and the more your team has invested in you, the less likely they are to hold you accountable for criminal assaults with an intimate partner. That appears to be changing now because of the backlash over the handling of the Ray Rice case. Last month, the NFL announced stiffer penalties for players who commit domestic assault: a six-game suspension for initial incidents and a lifetime ban for a second. We'll see if that holds true should Ray McDonald, the San Francisco 49er recently arrested on a felony domestic violence charge, be convicted. And on Monday, after TMZ Sports released the video of the elevator assault, the Ravens released Mr. Rice from his contract.

But let's not forget how police officers, prosecutors, judges, sports fans and elected officials can also take a stronger stand on violence against women. We are all responsible for refusing to tolerate violence and abuse in intimate relationships, and we all must all refuse to tolerate it. Would everyone have treated Ray Rice differently if his victim had been a total stranger? Today, across America, young thieves who assault total strangers and are facing severe consequences. But sadly, if the abuser and the victim know each other, a different standard seems frequently to apply. We will never see men making different choices about abusing those they claim to love unless we hold them accountable for choices to violently abuse others.

On the second point, we should have all been outraged at the very idea of the assault, without having to see it. While the video of Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée is stunning and deeply troubling, we already knew that he had knocked Palmer unconscious. What's more, millions of women are being abused every day without a video camera rolling. Our outrage and intolerance should not require a videotape of the crime. I prosecuted more than 20,000 domestic violence cases in my career as a prosecutor. We had a videotape of the actual assault in only a handful of cases. But we developed an evidence-based prosecution approach that focused on proving the crime instead of letting the abuser avoid accountability. We found corroborating evidence in most cases (and usually prior assaults) and maintained a 96 percent conviction rate for more than a decade. In California, we eliminated domestic violence diversion in 1995 in the wake of the O.J. Simpson case. New Jersey voters should demand the same and be even more outraged that with a video of the heinous assault, the criminal justice system washed out the case with little consequence for Ray Rice.

Domestic violence happens. It is reprehensible. People should pay the consequences for their choice to use violence and no one (including Roger Goodell) should try to protect them simply because they are rich, famous, powerful or critical to the success of our professional sports teams.

Casey Gwinn is the former elected San Diego City Attorney and today serves as the president of the National Family Justice Center Alliance. His email is Casey@nfjca.org.


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