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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 […]

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.