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Facing Life

Pennsylvania’s prisons have the second-highest number of people in the country serving life without the possibility of parole. Nine people who were released after being sentenced to die behind bars share their stories.

Photographs by Joshua Vaughn

Facing Life

Pennsylvania’s prisons have the second-highest number of people in the country serving life without the possibility of parole. Nine people who were released after being sentenced to die behind bars share their stories.


At the end of 2018, more than 5,400 people in Pennsylvania were serving life without the possibility of parole. Some advocates refer to this sentence as death by incarceration.

On Thursday, the Board of Pardons will hold hearings for three people serving life without the possibility of parole and could vote Friday on recommending commutations for eight others who had hearings earlier this year.

The Appeal, over the course of several months, met with nine people who had been released from prison after being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Five of these people were resentenced because their crimes occurred when they were children, two had their adult convictions commuted and two were exonerated.

Combined this group served more than 250 years in prison.


Ricky Lee Olds

Ricky Lee Olds was 14 when he was arrested and charged with murder. At the time, prosecutors argued that Olds had acted as a lookout while another teen, Roderick Allen robbed a man outside a cigar store in Pittsburgh. Olds has always denied knowing Allen was planning to commit the robbery.

In 1980, Olds was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, the mandatory sentence at the time. The judge, who, according to the Pittsburgh Press, felt “uneasy” about the sentence, delayed sentencing and asked prosecutors to reach a plea deal to a reduced sentence. Allegheny County District Attorney Bob Colville balked at the request and told reporters that Olds would likely have his sentence commuted and be released in less than 20 years.

Instead, Olds spent nearly 40 years in prison. He was released in 2016 after the United States Supreme Court ruled that children could not be sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole in the landmark decisions in Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made Miller retroactive.


Abd’Allah Lateef

In 1986, Abd’Allah Lateef was 17 when he said was drawn into an unarmed robbery that would result in Lateef being charged and convicted of second-degree murder in Montgomery County. Lateef maintains that he was unaware that a 21-year-old man he was with, Andrew Gibbs, was preparing to commit the robbery.

During Lateef’s trial, Gibbs testified that Lateef shoved the 86-year-old victim to the ground during the robbery, causing the man to break his hip. The victim died a few weeks later from a heart attack brought on by the injury. Gibbs was given a plea deal of seven and a half to 20 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter for his testimony. Lateef was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Lateef spent more than 30 years in prison before he was resentenced in 2017 and released. He is now employed as a senior strategic adviser and racial equity specialist at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth where he advocates for creating a fairer and more just criminal legal system.


Hassan Bennett

In September 2006, Hassan Bennett was arrested and charged with murder for the shooting death of a man on the west side of Philadelphia a few days earlier. Bennett, who was 23 at the time, admitted he was near the scene of the shooting but denied witness testimony that he had been involved. Bennett maintained his innocence through his trial but was convicted in December 2008 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

While in prison, Bennett filed his own post-conviction appeal, arguing that his attorney had failed to call witnesses who could corroborate his innocence and present evidence that he had been on the phone before, during, and after the killing. His petition was successful and Bennett received a new trial, in which he represented himself.

During his trial, Bennett showed that police had a history of coercing witnesses to provide false identifications, including in his case, and was able to present evidence of his innocence that was left out of his first trial. Bennett’s first attempt at a retrial resulted in a mistrial but on May 6, 2019—after more than a decade in prison—he was found not guilty and released.


Naomi Blount

In the mid 1960s, Naomi Wilson was a teenage singer with recordings produced by Philadelphia’s Swan Records. In 1982, she was arrested and charged with murder for the killing of a man who had stabbed her friend Brenda Baker. She was convicted in January 1983 and sentenced to life without parole.

Wilson, who is now Naomi Blount, said during her trial that she never meant to kill the man, only to hurt him. Forensic evidence later showed that it was Baker who had stabbed the man and delivered the fatal blows.

While incarcerated, Blount was a mentor to other incarcerated women. She was released in 2019 after Governor Tom Wolf commuted her sentence. She now works for Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman as a commutation specialist, helping process applications and acting as a liaison for incarcerated people seeking clemency.


Donnell Drinks

Donnell Drinks was 17 when he committed a robbery in February 1991 in Philadelphia along with his then girlfriend, Terri Joelle Harper. He was 18 when he was convicted of murder in 1992 for stabbing and killing a man during that robbery.

Drinks was initially sentenced to death, but that sentence was overturned after the Supreme Court banned imposing the death penalty on children. He was resentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

In April 2018, Drinks was resentenced to 26 years to life and released from prison. Following his release, he was hired as a re-entry service specialist with the FRIENDS mentorship program and in March 2020, Drinks was hired as the election protection coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.


Robert Saleem Holbrook

Just one day after his 16th birthday, Robert Saleem Holbrook participated in a home-invasion robbery with three other people. During the robbery, one of the men killed a woman inside the home. Despite never having taken a life, Holbrook pleaded guilty to murder two years after the incident in 1992 and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Holbrook spent nearly 30 years in prison before his resentencing in 2017. While incarcerated, he co-founded the Human Rights Coalition—an organization dedicated to supporting incarcerated people and their families and creating a system that provides rehabilitation and successful reintegration. He is also a founding member of the Coalition Against Death by Incarceration.

Since his release, Holbrook has continued his advocacy. In 2018, he joined the Abolitionist Law Center and served as the director of community organizing until August when he was named the executive director for the organization.


Erik VanZant

In 1988, Erik VanZant was charged with murder for breaking into his neighbor’s home in Philadelphia and killing her. He was 14 at the time and during his trial, prosecutors tried to paint him as a sociopath. He was convicted in 1991 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

In 2008, after more than 20 years in prison, VanZant testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing about juvenile life without parole. “Just as I once was a child but am no longer, I once committed a crime but am no longer a criminal,” he told the committee.

After more than 30 years in prison, VanZant was resentenced in 2018 and released. He is now gainfully employed doing awning fabrication and installation.


George Trudel

In 1986, George Trudel attempted to break up a fight between his friend Robert Barrett and another man at a party in Philadelphia. During the fight, Barrett stabbed the man and killed him. Both Barrett and Trudel were charged with murder.

Prosecutors argued that Trudel and Barrett had attempted to rob the man and in 1988 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Barrett accepted a plea deal from prosecutors and served less than 10 years in prison.

In April 2019, Wolf commuted Trudel’s sentence, and he was released from prison. He, like Blount, now works as a commutations specialist for Fetterman.


Terrance Lewis

In December 1997, Terrance Lewis was in Philadelphia preparing for the birth of his son, Zahaire. Those plans were abruptly interrupted when he was arrested and charged with a years-old murder he didn’t commit. Lewis was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Lewis spent the next 20 years trying to prove his innocence. He argued he had had ineffective counsel and that police had coerced witnesses to testify against him. In 2006, a new witness came forward who said she saw the men who committed the murder and knew Lewis was not one of them. A federal judge wrote in 2010 that new evidence likely proves Lewis did not commit the killing but that she did not have the authority to release him. Lewis spent nearly another decade in prison before a Philadelphia judge overturned his conviction in May 2019.

Since his release, Lewis sued the city of Philadelphia for his wrongful incarceration and reached a settlement for $6.25 million. Lewis has also now created the Terrance Lewis Liberation Fund, which helps wrongfully convicted people get out of prison and create lasting change in the criminal legal system.

What Does Death By Incarceration Look Like In Pennsylvania? These Elderly, Disabled Men Housed In A State Prison.

More than 5,400 people in the state are sentenced to life without parole. This month, The Appeal went inside one prison that helps provide end-of-life care for men.

An elderly man sits in wheelchair next to his bed at SCI Laurel Highlands in Somerset, Pa in November 2019.
Photo by Joshua Vaughn

What Does Death By Incarceration Look Like In Pennsylvania? These Elderly, Disabled Men Housed In A State Prison.

More than 5,400 people in the state are sentenced to life without parole. This month, The Appeal went inside one prison that helps provide end-of-life care for men.


One in 10 people serving life without the possibility of parole in the U.S. is incarcerated in Pennsylvania. The state is second only to Florida in the number of people serving the sentence. These people will ultimately die while incarcerated if relief does not come in the form of a new law to provide parole eligibility or changes to the commutations process. 

Other states have taken strides to reduce death by incarceration, like Massachusetts, which is currently considering a bill that would end life without parole and allow people convicted of murder to be eligible for parole after 25 years.

This month, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections permitted The Appeal to photograph inside SCI Laurel Highlands, a prison in the southwestern part of the state that houses a large population of people who require long-term and personal care. The prison provides skilled nursing, hospice and palliative care for some of the oldest men in the Pennsylvania prison system.

In accordance with DOC rules, The Appeal agreed not to photograph any of the men’s faces or publish their names.

In 1976, less than 700 people in the Pennsylvania prison system were sentenced to life without parole. At the end of 2018, more than 5,400 people in prison were sentenced to life in Pennsylvania, a number nearly equal to the total population incarcerated in its entire prison system during the 1960s and 1970s.

Although there has been a renewed effort under the leadership of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the chairperson of the Board of Pardons, to provide more commutations from life sentences, the process stagnated for several decades.

During Governor Milton Shapp’s administration from 1971 to 1978, 251 people received commutations of their life sentences. Only 51 people have had their sentences commuted since Shapp left office.

In September, the Board of Pardons recommended commutations for nine people, the most recommended at once in decades. But thousands remain in prison with little chance at freedom.

One man, who has been incarcerated for more than 40 years, told The Appeal about his days as a bodybuilder in his early 20s. Photos of the man striking Adonis-like poses hung on the walls in his room.

“I was 22 and dumb and had a gun,” he said.

Now 65, the man’s body was frail and broken. He relied on a wheelchair for mobility and his right hand curled in because of degenerative arthritis. He said he broke his neck twice while he was incarcerated, once during a fight when he was a young man and more recently during a fall.

He said he hoped to one day get out of prison so he could mentor young men to keep them from “throwing their lives away.”

In 1980, fewer than 10 people serving life without parole in Pennsylvania were over the age of 65. At the end of 2018, there were more than 700.

More than half of all people in prison in Pennsylvania who were sentenced to death by incarceration have served more than 20 years; nearly 400 have been in prison for at least 40 years. The average age of a person serving a life sentence in the state is now nearly 50 years old.

Because of the aging prison population, SCI Laurel Highlands has become a medical facility. It is common to see prisoners connected to oxygen tanks or other medical equipment make their way down the halls in wheelchairs.

The men sleep in hospital beds and receive services similar to a skilled nursing facility. Several of the men receive hospice and palliative care.

SCI Laurel Highlands even has a dialysis clinic for men in renal failure or with other kidney diseases.

More than 350 people have died of natural causes while serving a life sentence over the last decade, according to the Pennsylvania DOC.

Earlier this year, state Senator Sharif Street, a Democrat, reintroduced a bill that would provide parole eligibility for people convicted of first- and second-degree murder. The bill would allow people convicted of second-degree murder to apply for parole after 20 years in prison and 30 years for people convicted of first-degree murder.

But the bill faces resistance in the Republican-led legislature and is opposed by several powerful organizations, including Pennsylvania’s Office of Victim Advocate.

When Police Violence Is Domestic Violence

When Police Violence Is Domestic Violence


Rodney Reed was scheduled to be executed tomorrow. He won’t be, at least not tomorrow. He was convicted and sentenced to die in 1998 for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. But last Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas halted his execution and ordered the court where he was originally tried to consider new evidence in the case, including testimony from eyewitnesses who have come forward in recent months pointing toward the victim’s fiancé as another suspect.

But the existence of evidence against Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, wasn’t exactly news. Fennell had been the first suspect. But police never pursued him aggressively, and as soon as Reed was brought in as a suspect, police shifted their focus entirely, even though the evidence against Reed was far weaker. Why? Apart from the difference in race––Fennell is white, Reed is Black––there was something else working in Fennell’s favor: He was a police officer.

Stites was found dead in April of 1996, her body dumped on the side of a country road outside of Bastrop, a small town near Austin. She was partially clothed and lying face up, her arms above her head. Based on marks on her neck, investigators concluded that she’d been strangled with a braided leather belt, a piece of which was left nearby. Sperm was collected from inside her. Nearly a year later, investigators found that the DNA matched Reed. It was the only evidence tying Reed to the murder. When he was initially questioned by police, Reed denied knowing Stites, but soon admitted to having an affair with her, which would explain the presence of his DNA. But the prosecution was based on a theory that Reed was a stranger who had hijacked Stites’s van, raped her, and strangled her. There was no shortage of witnesses who could have testified to the affair, some of whom knew that Fennell had found out about it and threatened Reed, but many stayed home, and those who testified were not considered effective.

Over the past 18 years, Jordan Smith of The Intercept has written dozens of times about Reed’s case. “It was clear early on that it had serious problems,” but as “the years have passed, the case has become even more disturbing. There is medical and forensic evidence that has been debunked. There are witnesses—including within Stites’s family—who have come forward to say they were aware of the relationship. And then there’s Fennell. There’s been a lot of troubling information about him, too, including from law enforcement officers disturbed by his behavior both before and after Stites’s murder.”

Smith’s most recent piece gives a detailed look at the weaknesses of the state’s case against Reed and the holes in Fennell’s own story. She notes that early on, Fennell was a suspect, even though investigators knew Fannell hadn’t contributed the DNA evidence, which means they did not consider DNA to be the linchpin of the case the way they would later claim. And they never seemed to go after him in earnest. They never, for example, searched Fennell’s apartment, even though it was the last place Stites had been seen alive. He early on failed two polygraph tests, which are unreliable, but after that, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and stopped cooperating. Smith notes that additional forensic evidence pointed toward Fennell but was ignored.

All this suggests that detectives suffered from tunnel vision, “to which all law enforcement officers are susceptible,” a group of officers wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court in support of Reed. “This phenomenon does not depend on any bad faith or incompetence of the officers involved. Rather, it is a result of ordinary cognitive bias, that can make even experienced, well-intentioned officers fixate on a theory of the case that, from an objective perspective, does not hold up.”

What this says about police work is not confined to the police who investigated the case. It correlates with Fennell’s own performance as an officer and his use of power. “There was evidence of Fennell’s racial animus and propensity for violence before Stites’s murder, though much of it wasn’t made public until well after Reed’s trial,” writes Smith.

And while much has been made about separate, unproved allegations against Reed for sexual violence, “there is at least one person connected to Stites who we know has a history of sexual violence,” Smith writes. “Jimmy Fennell, who in 2008 pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a person in custody after he raped, at gunpoint, a woman named Connie Lear against the back of his patrol car while on duty and in uniform.” Fennell was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released a year ago. “Fennell’s arrest in that case prompted several other women to come forward, alleging similar threats and assaults, including one rape. These episodes had either never been reported or had been ignored by law enforcement.”

This story parallels another story that has received less attention but was recently reported by Rachel Aviv for the New Yorker. Aviv writes about Jessica, a Georgia woman who was abused for years by her husband until she was shot twice in the head, in what appeared to be a suicide attempt. Evidence soon pointed to her husband, Matthew Boynton, who not only was a police officer but also the grandson of the powerful local sheriff. But the investigation inexplicably did not involve testing Jessica or Matthew for gunpowder residue. The state agency investigating deferred to its chief medical examiner, who spent 90 minutes on the case and never examined Jessica. He concluded that Jessica had shot herself in the head, ignoring contradicting opinions by the doctors that treated her. “The agents who wrote the report seemed indifferent to the dynamics of Jessica and Matthew’s marriage, as if the subject were a private matter that didn’t merit discussion in an official investigation,” Aviv writes. They recorded eight interviews with Matthew’s colleagues, and none with Jessica or her friends.

“Although police departments have become more attentive to officers’ use of excessive force against civilians, the same scrutiny has not been applied to their potential for violent behavior at home,” writes Aviv. “In the nineteen-nineties, researchers found that forty-one per cent of male officers admitted that, in the previous year, they’d been physically aggressive toward their spouses, and nearly ten per cent acknowledged choking, strangling, or using—or threatening to use—a knife or a gun.” There are almost no empirical studies examining the prevalence of this sort of abuse today. Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, believes that this kind of attention might lead to an uncomfortable revelation: that “those policing the crime and those committing it are often the same person.”

This year, an independent panel found that the typical penalty for New York City police officers found guilty of domestic violence was 30 lost vacation days. In nearly a third of cases, the officers already had a domestic-violence incident on their records. In the Puerto Rico Police Department between 2007 and 2010, 98 police officers were arrested for domestic violence; three of them had shot and killed their wives. Eight were fired. Last summer, the sheriff of Los Angeles County, Alex Villanueva, in defending his decision to employ a deputy who had been accused of stalking and physically abusing his ex-girlfriend, told a local reporter that it was “a private relationship between two consenting adults that went bad.” The violence was seen as unrelated to job performance.

Never mind the bold hypocrisy of turning a blind eye toward domestic abuse among officers, while coming down with the full force of the law on anyone without a badge who so much as jaywalks. This willful blindness also means that, in a society that gives law enforcement a practical monopoly on violence, the only people empowered to inflict harm are those who may have done so at home. For people who scream about public safety risks every time a poor person is not saddled with exorbitant bail, law enforcement leaders are strangely untroubled by this actual public safety concern. As presidential candidate Julián Castro said from the Democratic debate stage last month, “Police violence is also gun violence.”

“The factors that lead to abuse at home—coercion, authoritarianism, a sense of entitlement to violence—are also present in the work that police officers do on the streets,” Aviv adds. “It should not be surprising that domestic abuse appears to predict excessive use of force—a link that scholars have suggested should alter the way that departments respond to both kinds of aggression. In Chicago, the Citizens Police Data Project “found that officers accused of domestic abuse received fifty per cent more complaints than their colleagues for using excessive force.” Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University has found that nationwide, 1 in 5 officers arrested for domestic violence had also been the subject of a federal lawsuit for violating people’s civil rights.

According to a former deputy in Matthew Boynton’s police department, no one believed that Matthew would suffer any consequences. The sheriff’s “grandson will get off,” she said. “Nothing will happen to the kid.” It turns out Matthew was finally charged with a crime—for lying about returning a gym bag with Jessica’s belongings in it. He faced two felonies: making false statements and violating his oath of office. Stinson says that officers accused of domestic violence are often charged with lesser offenses, as a kind of “professional courtesy,” so they can continue working. “Jessica found it darkly funny that it was a missing retainer, and not her brain injury, that ultimately led to Matthew’s arrest,” writes Aviv. But the department dragged its feet for months on the charge, and even after prodding by outside investigators, he was never indicted. “Under Georgia law, police officers, unlike civilians, have the right to make a prepared statement at the end of a grand-jury hearing. There is no public record of the proceeding, but the grand jury chose not to indict Matthew either for making false statements or for violating his oath.” Four months later, he was hired as a reserve officer in a nearby town.

More in Explainers

When Police Violence Is Domestic Violence

When Police Violence Is Domestic Violence


Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

Rodney Reed was scheduled to be executed tomorrow. He won’t be, at least not tomorrow. He was convicted and sentenced to die in 1998 for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. But last Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas halted his execution and ordered the court where he was originally tried to consider new evidence in the case, including testimony from eyewitnesses who have come forward in recent months pointing toward the victim’s fiancé as another suspect.

But the existence of evidence against Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, wasn’t exactly news. Fennell had been the first suspect. But police never pursued him aggressively, and as soon as Reed was brought in as a suspect, police shifted their focus entirely, even though the evidence against Reed was far weaker. Why? Apart from the difference in race––Fennell is white, Reed is Black––there was something else working in Fennell’s favor: He was a police officer.

Stites was found dead in April of 1996, her body dumped on the side of a country road outside of Bastrop, a small town near Austin. She was partially clothed and lying face up, her arms above her head. Based on marks on her neck, investigators concluded that she’d been strangled with a braided leather belt, a piece of which was left nearby. Sperm was collected from inside her. Nearly a year later, found that the DNA matched Reed. It was the only evidence tying Reed to the murder. When he was initially questioned by police, Reed denied knowing Stites, but soon admitted to having an affair with her, which would explain the presence of his DNA. But the prosecution was based on a theory that Reed was a stranger who had hijacked Stites’s van, raped her, and strangled her. There was no shortage of witnesses who could have testified to the affair, some of whom knew that Fennell had found out about it and threatened Reed, but many stayed home, and those who testified were not considered effective.

Over the past 18 years, Jordan Smith of The Intercept has written dozens of times about Reed’s case. “It was clear early on that it had serious problems,” but as “the years have passed, the case has become even more disturbing. There is medical and forensic evidence that has been debunked. There are witnesses—including within Stites’s family—who have come forward to say they were aware of the relationship. And then there’s Fennell. There’s been a lot of troubling information about him, too, including from law enforcement officers disturbed by his behavior both before and after Stites’s murder.”

Smith’s most recent piece gives a detailed look at the weaknesses of the state’s case against Reed and the holes in Fennell’s own story. She notes that early on, Fennell was a suspect, even though investigators knew Fannell hadn’t contributed the DNA evidence, which means they did not consider DNA to be the linchpin of the case the way they would later claim. And they never seemed to go after him in earnest. They never, for example, searched Fennell’s apartment, even though it was the last place Stites had been seen alive. He early on failed two polygraph tests, which are unreliable, but after that, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and stopped cooperating. Smith notes that additional forensic evidence pointed toward Fennell but was ignored.

All this suggests that detectives suffered from tunnel vision, “to which all law enforcement officers are susceptible,” a group of officers wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court in support of Reed. “This phenomenon does not depend on any bad faith or incompetence of the officers involved. Rather, it is a result of ordinary cognitive bias, that can make even experienced, well-intentioned officers fixate on a theory of the case that, from an objective perspective, does not hold up.”

What this says about police work is not confined to the police who investigated the case. It correlates with Fennell’s own performance as an officer and his use of power. “There was evidence of Fennell’s racial animus and propensity for violence before Stites’s murder, though much of it wasn’t made public until well after Reed’s trial,” writes Smith.

And while much has been made about separate, unproved allegations against Reed for sexual violence, “there is at least one person connected to Stites who we know has a history of sexual violence,” Smith writes. “Jimmy Fennell, who in 2008 pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a person in custody after he raped, at gunpoint, a woman named Connie Lear against the back of his patrol car while on duty and in uniform.” Fennell was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released a year ago. “Fennell’s arrest in that case prompted several other women to come forward, alleging similar threats and assaults, including one rape. These episodes had either never been reported or had been ignored by law enforcement.”

This story parallels another story that has received less attention but was recently reported by Rachel Aviv for the New Yorker. Aviv writes about Jessica, a Georgia woman who was abused for years by her husband until she was shot twice in the head, in what appeared to be a suicide attempt. Evidence soon pointed to her husband, Matthew Boynton, who not only was a police officer but also the grandson of the powerful local sheriff. But the investigation inexplicably did not involve testing Jessica or Matthew for gunpowder residue. The state agency investigating deferred to its chief medical examiner, who spent 90 minutes on the case and never examined Jessica. He concluded that Jessica had shot herself in the head, ignoring contradicting opinions by the doctors that treated her. “The agents who wrote the report seemed indifferent to the dynamics of Jessica and Matthew’s marriage, as if the subject were a private matter that didn’t merit discussion in an official investigation,” Aviv writes. They recorded eight interviews with Matthew’s colleagues, and none with Jessica or her friends.

“Although police departments have become more attentive to officers’ use of excessive force against civilians, the same scrutiny has not been applied to their potential for violent behavior at home,” writes Aviv. “In the nineteen-nineties, researchers found that forty-one per cent of male officers admitted that, in the previous year, they’d been physically aggressive toward their spouses, and nearly ten per cent acknowledged choking, strangling, or using—or threatening to use—a knife or a gun.” There are almost no empirical studies examining the prevalence of this sort of abuse today. Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, believes that this kind of attention might lead to an uncomfortable revelation: that “those policing the crime and those committing it are often the same person.”

This year, an independent panel found that the typical penalty for New York City police officers found guilty of domestic violence was 30 lost vacation days. In nearly a third of cases, the officers already had a domestic-violence incident on their records. In the Puerto Rico Police Department between 2007 and 2010, 98 police officers were arrested for domestic violence; three of them had shot and killed their wives. Eight were fired. Last summer, the sheriff of Los Angeles County, Alex Villanueva, in defending his decision to employ a deputy who had been accused of stalking and physically abusing his ex-girlfriend, told a local reporter that it was “a private relationship between two consenting adults that went bad.” The violence was seen as unrelated to job performance.

Never mind the bold hypocrisy of turning a blind eye toward domestic abuse among officers, while coming down with the full force of the law on anyone without a badge who so much as jaywalks. This willful blindness also means that, in a society that gives law enforcement a practical monopoly on violence, the only people empowered to inflict harm are those who may have done so at home. For people who scream about public safety risks every time a poor person is not saddled with exorbitant bail, law enforcement leaders are strangely untroubled by this actual public safety concern. As presidential candidate Julián Castro said from the Democratic debate stage last month, “Police violence is also gun violence.”

“The factors that lead to abuse at home—coercion, authoritarianism, a sense of entitlement to violence—are also present in the work that police officers do on the streets,” Aviv adds. “It should not be surprising that domestic abuse appears to predict excessive use of force—a link that scholars have suggested should alter the way that departments respond to both kinds of aggression. In Chicago, the Citizens Police Data Project “found that officers accused of domestic abuse received fifty per cent more complaints than their colleagues for using excessive force.” Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University has found that nationwide, 1 in 5 officers arrested for domestic violence had also been the subject of a federal lawsuit for violating people’s civil rights.

According to a former deputy in Matthew Boynton’s police department, no one believed that Matthew would suffer any consequences. The sheriff’s “grandson will get off,” she said. “Nothing will happen to the kid.” It turns out Matthew was finally charged with a crime—for lying about returning a gym bag with Jessica’s belongings in it. He faced two felonies: making false statements and violating his oath of office. Stinson says that officers accused of domestic violence are often charged with lesser offenses, as a kind of “professional courtesy,” so they can continue working. “Jessica found it darkly funny that it was a missing retainer, and not her brain injury, that ultimately led to Matthew’s arrest,” writes Aviv. But the department dragged its feet for months on the charge, and even after prodding by outside investigators, he was never indicted. “Under Georgia law, police officers, unlike civilians, have the right to make a prepared statement at the end of a grand-jury hearing. There is no public record of the proceeding, but the grand jury chose not to indict Matthew either for making false statements or for violating his oath.” Four months later, he was hired as a reserve officer in a nearby town.