As published originally in Campus Activities Magazine – September 2014
Anyone in my close circle knows that Violence Against Women and Intimate Partner Violence are issues that ignite my passion. VAW and IPV have colored my life from day one as I was born into a home marked by domestic violence/IPV. My mother was a victim and my father, an abuser. I am happy to say that my mother and I eventually escaped that situation—she has been happily remarried for 33 years and I am a happy well-adjusted adult. I am not in a violent relationship—breaking the cycle. I am raising a teenage son who has been taught with love and guided by example what healthy relationships look like and how to treat others with respect and dignity. And, I am actively working to help others avoid VAW and IPV through my work with Kirkland Productions, Inc. and Girls Fight Back.
Most importantly, my mother and I are here to share our stories and that is the biggest success of all. The Bureau of Justice Statistics tells us that 2,340 people in the United States were victims of intimate partner homicide in 2007 and females made up to 70% of those victims killed, a proportion that has changed very little since 2007. To save you the time on the math, that is over 6 people a day murdered in the name of love. As a US resident, if you have been a victim of IPV and you live to talk about it . . . you are absolutely a success story. Though these statistics are shocking, they don’t even begin to fully show the impact on those victims who weren’t killed or never reported and whose lives and those of their family members, friends, and children will be forever altered. For those affected by this crime, this will always be a part of their story and a piece of their life experience, as it is a piece of me. I am happy to state, that in my case, I feel I can now say it has been a positive result. I truly hope that my first hand experience can help others.
- SIDE NOTE: The issues of VAW, IPV, Domestic Violence/Dating Violence, Stalking, Sexual Assault, and Rape are thoroughly entwined, but are separately defined. For the case of this article, I am going to use the term IPV from here on out when stating from my perspective and I want to explain why to the reader. IPV is defined by the CDC as physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy. I think this is very important to note because when we use the term Domestic Violence we often get the picture in our minds of a man abusing his wife and that just isn’t a complete picture of abuse. This type of abuse does not discriminate. It affects people of all ages and ethnicities, all genders, all sexual orientations, and all marital statuses. It affects people in relationships and those who have left those relationships. It also is not narrowly defined by the tell-tale sign of a black eye that is often interpreted as the true sign of “domestic violence.” Many victims have no scars or physical injuries to show. The term IPV is inclusive and much more respectful to the victims who can include men (yes, men!), all of our LGBT community, and all of those romantic relationships that are not necessarily included in the formal guidelines of marriage. So, now that I have clarified, I want to tell you how I ended up in the jury box.
I got that dreaded letter in the mail recently—the jury summons. Seriously, who has time for this? I am a single parent, I run three companies, I travel extensively for work (and sometimes for fun), I am self-employed with a large number of people who depend on my work for their income, and I also have the audacity to have an active social life. My life is no more or less important than any other citizen who gets the same notification in the mail. I know that. I truly do, but I wouldn’t be a full-fledged American if I didn’t have just a tad of self-importance, right? So, yes, I am not excited as this really isn’t convenient, but I also have to recognize that it is my civic duty and I have never served on a jury. Many years ago I received a summons but was excused because of the birth of my son. A few years back I received a second and showed up to the courthouse but was never called to a court. Round three and the dates conflicted with planned travel so I deferred. And deferred again. And deferred yet again, before I realized I just had to take care of this responsibility.
After a jury orientation and a few hours of waiting around, my name was called and I was informed I had to drive quite a ways to yet another court to report there. Really????? They can do that???? Apparently, they can. Annoyed, I start navigating through more unfamiliar LA highways and get to the next courthouse to start the waiting around process again. After a few more hours, just when I think we are going to be sent home, we are called into the court and after being given a few preliminary bits of information. We are then told that since it was so late in the day, we would report back the next day to start jury selection.
On day two reporting to court, the judge explains to us how jury selection works. Initially we are provided with a lot of instructions, our civic duty is emphasized by the judge, the importance of honesty and our part in the judicial system is underscored with more than a few sighs of exasperation from the prospective jury pool, and we are introduced to the key players in the case, namely the prosecuting attorney, the defense attorney, the defendant, and, through name only, the witness list of both parties to ensure we do not personally know any of these people. No one does, so at this point the judge tells us that this case is one involving an accusation of domestic violence. It is at this point that I realize by putting two and two together that the defendant’s only witness is, most likely by the names, his wife. My first thought at this point is that as soon as they see what I do for a living (information I was required to provide up front), I am out of here! Then I slowly start to realize, that though I never had a chance to experience justice from our legal system for the wrongs that my family and I experienced, I might have a chance to participate in justice for someone else who might be in a similar situation. And, then, my final and very somber realization is that though I have been personally affected by these issues, I am here to be fair and to follow the law and I can’t let my feelings affect that process. Emotional overload!
After all of the preliminary information is out of the way, each of the 35 – 40 of us is lined up and seated in order in the jury chairs and given a piece of paper to fill out asking for our juror number, city of residence, our occupation, the occupation of everyone else in our household, and details of our previous jury experience. Then, one by one, the judge asked each of us for this info out loud in open court and asked clarifying questions where necessary. My profession was initially listed as “business owner/victim advocate” in the forms I filled out during the orientation on day one, so, though a full explanation of my profession is much more detailed than that, I repeated it on this form and to the judge out loud. There were definitely some “clarifying questions” asked by the judge. As a Victim Advocate (I am a certified VA with NOVA – The National Organization for Victim Assistance), what would I consider my specialty? I hesitated, knowing how this would be perceived, before I truthfully answered, “Violence Against Women.” . . . pause . . .
At this moment, the defendant and his attorney both turn their full attention to me. The defense attorney quickly returned his attention to the judge and his papers, but, though I initially thought it was my imagination and was later told by the other jurors that it definitely was not, I had the defendant’s full and undivided attention for the rest of my time in court. He continued to look directly at me with a blank and cold stare almost as if we were playing a game to see who would blink first—it wasn’t me, I assure you. I continued to meet his blank glare with the same right back as if I could silently tell him, “Those close to you might be afraid of you, but I KNOW that abusers are nothing but pathetic cowards and I invite you to try some of that shit on me anytime. PLEASE. BE. MY. GUEST. I would like nothing more than to return your bullshit with a quick groin strike. EYES! EYES! EYES!”
In self-defense fight classes, we scream out body parts to the person engaged in the fight to indicate where she can strike next in defending herself against an attacker.
Yeah, I realize in thinking this that I am not impartial or unbiased. I am also not apologizing for it. As the judge stated many times during this process and I truly believe as part of my own personal mantra—not a single adult walking on this earth is unbiased or impartial. To be so, would be inhuman. We are each of us made up of a series of life experiences and interactions and those will always impact the way we view everyone and everything around us. There are times I wish this weren’t so, and I do think that, despite that, I am a very fair and just person in the way I genuinely try to view things from all sides before coming to my own conclusions. However, everyone knows, I don’t harbor a lot of love or patience for asshole abusers. There you go.
I also know and recognize that abusers have their own baggage. Many have experienced abuse themselves. Many could benefit from some serious therapy to work out their problems and deserve sympathy for the road they traveled that led to them being abusive in the first place. But, who couldn’t use a little therapy? There are plenty of people out there (I know quite a few personally) who have been through some seriously tough shit in their life and they don’t choose to work that out by beating, raping, battering, belittling, or in any way harming those around them . . . more importantly those who they claim to love. To do so, is the greatest cowardice of all, in my opinion, and to those many many people out there who have sought help to fix themselves rather than continue the cycle of abuse, I applaud you. THAT is true courage.
I digress. Whether the defendant was guilty or not of what he was accused, I don’t know. I don’t know the situation intimately and, in conjunction with what the law states we must do, I will do my best to view him as innocent until proven guilty. After a full afternoon of further questioning and many clarifications about whether I specifically, but also the other jurors, could follow the rule of law, could honor “innocent until proven guilty,” could not allow our personal feelings to dissuade us from following the terms of the law, we were finally released for the day. I left thinking that perhaps I would be selected for this jury and was already carrying on a full internal dialog reminding myself how important it was to follow my civic duty and be impartial.
Justice and legal justice, in my eyes, are two very different things. We have the law and then we have justice and, sadly, the two do not always go hand in hand. I won’t insult your ability for basic social observation by giving you a long list of examples, but I will give you one example that involves someone close to me. I have a dear friend/speaking client named Stacey Lannert. You can read her full story in her book Redemption or watch her Oprah appearance on youtube. To make a long story short, this is a brief summary of Stacey’s story.
Stacey Lannert was released from prison where she served 18 years for fatally shooting the man who raped her from ages 8 through 18. That man was her father. The governor granted her clemency in 2009, and within 6 days, she walked out of the prison gates. When Stacey was tried for her crime, the court considered many facts of the case that included the fact that she fatally shot her father. The much longer story of her abuse at his hands was not included in those facts of consideration. That was legal justice as the law was written at that time, but, in my opinion, that was not justice. The truth is much more complicated than that for Stacey and for many other people in the justice system. In real justice there is very little black and white and a whole lot of gray area.
Bottom line, despite all of its faults and failings, I do believe in the American justice system. So does Stacey, for that matter. She is at the time of this writing beginning her first year of law school. It isn’t a perfect system, but I believe that the best way to achieve true justice is to honor the law and work to change the law when it fails us. On day three of jury selection, the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney began their questioning of the jury pool and the question of honoring the law was brought up time and time again. We were provided with hypotheticals, for example, if a man is being tried for the crime of sleeping on the sidewalk and the only witness testifies that the man was asleep is he guilty or not guilty? Correct answer: Not guilty. The only testimony we have is that he was asleep. There was no testimony as to if he was asleep on the sidewalk which was the question we were to answer. This went on and on.
On day three, I was singled out again, as I fully expected to be, for individual questions from both the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney. The defense attorney was hammering me about my ability to be fair and just and to not jump to conclusions based on my experience or prior knowledge. I assured him repeatedly and in different ways that I prefer facts to assumptions, all the while, his client is still staring me down. The defense attorney used what occurred to me later was a clever tactic. It was obvious that both attorneys had typed “Girls Fight Back” in a search engine and I am sure found out quite a bit about me through that search. They knew what I do for a living, what I believe, and that I have received training on these issues. At one point the prosecutor asked another male juror how he would react if the victim testified for her abuser instead of against him and the man stated that he would be less likely to believe the abuse. Then he asked me the same question and I stated that there are many reasons that a victim might not want to testify including . . . “Objection.” I was cut off there and the defense attorney asked to speak to the judge. The attorneys and judge left the room for quite some time and when they returned, the question being directed to me was much softer, less pointed, and certainly did not give me a platform to say what I was about to say which is . . .
Here are just a few of the possible reasons that a victim of IPV might have when choosing not to testify against their abuser/what I would have said had I been given the opportunity:
- Shame and humiliation about publicly acknowledging the abuse
- Fear of retaliation
- Fear of being murdered
- Cultural norms mandating that marriage is forever
- Cultural norms mandating that the man is the head of his household and prevails in all things
- Disapproval from family/friends/children
- Fear of not having financial support if separated from the abuser
- Fear of losing custody of their children
- Love for their partner despite the abuse
- The belief that this time (as they have probably heard from their abuser) really is the last time and it will be better in the future
- The underlying belief that they are not worthy of better than this relationship (an idea probably also reinforced by the abuser)
- Fear of deportation
- Fear of criminal prosecution for any related or unrelated crime they may have committed
- Lack of emotional support in the decision to leave
- Fear of losing their home
- Language issues that prevent clear communication with law enforcement, medical staff, attorneys
I was annoyed that I wasn’t given a platform to say this in open court for all of the other potential jurors to hear because I know how hard it can be to understand the vast gray area in the intricacies of IPV. Soon after this question, the attorneys were allowed to list their first choices to be removed from the jury panel and, no big shock, the defense attorney excused me. In light of all things, this was the right end result. I do think I can follow the rule of law as a juror despite my personal experience, my professional knowledge, and my strong feelings on the subject; but, I also know that if I were in a deliberation room and another juror made an uninformed comment such as that a victim who doesn’t testify against her abuser clearly was not abused, that deliberation room would become my classroom. Justice, . . . maybe? But, I can be fairly persuasive when I get on my soapbox and I am not sure that would have allowed for a balanced decision among all of the jurors which is why we have a jury system in the first place. In the end, the system of each attorney getting to remove a few jurors balances things out to allow the criminal justice system to play itself out. In that vein, the prosecutor as I was being dismissed took his chance to remove a juror who had admitted during questioning to being an abuser himself.
I won’t get to see this case to its conclusion. I don’t know if the defendant will be found guilty or not guilty. I do know in my heart, though, that despite the legal conclusion, the victim (if these allegations are true) is not going to find a solution to her problem in that courtroom. I in no way am discounting the hard work that law enforcement and the criminal justice system do to combat IPV, but I do know that it isn’t the answer. Guilty or not, the victim may return to the abuser. The cycle of violence may continue for her and for her children as the problem is too deeply rooted to be solved by a legal penalty. This has been made evident time and time again, most notably to Americans in the life story of Nicole Brown Simpson. Her story, familiar to most of us, was sad and tragic, but not at all unique.
My experience of (almost) sitting on a jury stirred up a lot of emotion and reflection for me. I believe at the core that we are all here on this earth to look out for one another. I believe in treating other women as my sisters and I know we can affect each other’s lives positively if we keep that in mind always first and foremost. I need to hold onto that, because if not, what’s the point? I also know that I will never look at a jury summons the same way again. It isn’t just a hassle. It isn’t just a disruption to our busy lives. It is an opportunity to come together as a community to work toward justice for all of our sisters and brothers and we are so very lucky to live in a country that allows us that opportunity. So, when that dreaded envelope shows up in your mail, I hope you can consider this as well. Speak with your voice and in your truth to do what’s right. It may seem small to you, but it isn’t. We don’t all have the time to volunteer, or be an activist, or the money to donate to causes we believe in, but we do have our voices and our truths. I truly believe that together we can make a difference and create positive change. I hope you do too.
For more information about booking Girls Fight Back, Stacey Lannert, or interACT to empower your campus to fight back against violence, you can reach us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 866-769-9037
About the author: Gina Kirkland opened Kirkland Productions, Inc, a college entertainment/speakers agency, in 2000. In 2007, she opened her second company, KP Comedy, and, in 2013, she channeled her lifelong passion for Women’s Issues into the purchase of Girls Fight Back. She runs the GFB Speaker Academy, is a NOVA certified Victim Advocate, works in partnership with the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office of the Department of the Navy (DON SAPRO) on issues of sexual assault prevention and bystander behavior, is a graduate of the Gavin de Becker Advanced Threat Assessment and Management Academy, IMPACT Los Angeles, FAST Defense, and currently sits on the IMPACT Los Angeles Board.