Reporting on Remy: The Media’s Role in Domestic Violence Awareness

by Katherine Schulte, Supervising Attorney, Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law

“Any information from the purported victim?”

“Nothing definite, judge…the information I have is that she’s not here….about whether she’s coming later today, I don’t know.”

“I understand, but at least she’s not here now, so there’s no reason for me to hold this situation and address it?”

This is an excerpt from a transcript of the August 14th hearing in which Jared Remy, son of the famed Red Sox broadcaster, was charged with assaulting his girlfriend Jennifer Martel.  The night before he had been arrested for slamming her face into a mirror.  Martel was granted an emergency restraining order that night, but, as the above exchange shows, chose not to come to court to extend it the following morning. Remy was released with a warning not to abuse Martel.  The next day, she was dead.

Remy is charged with fatally stabbing Martel on the evening of August 15, 2013.  According to prosecutors, at least one neighbor in their apartment complex tried to intervene during the incident, but was driven back when Remy turned the knife of him.  When police responded to the townhouse that evening (the second time in as many days) they found Remy covered in blood and Martel stabbed to death on their patio.  Their 4-year-old child was at home.

It is a sad reality that it usually takes a tragedy to bring attention to a complex and destructive social issue like domestic violence.  Media attention is even more predominant when one of the parties involved has a famous last name.  As a society, our instinctive question in the wake of tragedy is:  How could this have happened?  A knee-jerk reaction is to blame the criminal justice system.  Critics have argued that the District Attorney’s office mishandled the case, both by recommending that Remy be released and by failing to hold a “dangerousness” hearing under a state law designed to restrict release of particularly violent offenders.  An independent review of the factors that led to the recommendation to release Remy has been initiated.

The reality in busy urban courts is that an exchange at arraignment like the one above is all too common.  Remy had no prior court involvement with Martel before his initial arrest on August 13th.  While his rap sheet was by no means short, he had not been charged with a domestic violence crime in eight years.  In discussing this case with a colleague, I mused that we would have seen a similar decision to release the perpetrator in 90% of the cases our domestic violence clinic handles—especially when the victim was not present at arraignment.  “90%?!” my colleague exclaimed. “Try 99%.”

Another way we try to make sense of such a horrific crime is by putting the perpetrator under the microscope.  Most articles discussing this case have noted Remy’s criminal background, especially his history of domestic violence with other women.  They have also commented on Remy’s physical size, calling him “a massive man” and discussing his rumored steroid use.  While these descriptions highlight some of the red flags about Remy that suggest that Martel may have been at increased risk, they do not explain that the root causes of domestic violence are power and control, not body type or capacity for physical force.  In fact, taken too far, such descriptions can perpetuate dangerous misconceptions about who is capable of being a perpetrator and who isn’t.

Some reporting has done well to provide information about the dynamics of domestic violence, highlight risk factors, and point out the missed opportunity to connect the victim to advocates in her community.   High-risk teams in Massachusetts, like the one profiled in a recent New Yorker article and one which is being developed in Boston, are a step in the right direction in identifying ways to prevent domestic violence homicides. Other pieces begin to shed light on the importance of examining domestic violence cases not simply through the law enforcement lens, but by looking at deeper causes of violence in society.

The problem remains, however, that the majority of attention given to a tragedy like this is responsive, not proactive.  While it’s necessary to highlights things like warning signs in batterer behavior and the response of the criminal justice system, these are long-term solutions.  They cannot change the fact that individuals will continue to be victimized, and victims will continue to fall through the cracks if they do not know that individualized, empowering, culturally-appropriate services are available in their communities.

Every article about the Remy-Martel case is an opportunity to inform the public about the dynamics of domestic violence, risk factors, and, most importantly, services that are available to victims, their children, and batterers.  But in only one of these articles (notably, not from a mainstream news outlet) is information provided to actually connect survivors to services.  Most articles also reported that the couple’s child, who was present during the murder, was not harmed—without any mention of the severe and lifelong impacts of trauma on children who witness violence.

Responsible reporting is one aspect of highlighting the complexities of addressing domestic violence in our communities.  It’s equally important to note that the faces of domestic violence homicide in Massachusetts are not just the heterosexual, white couple with ties to a major sport franchise.  Massachusetts averages about 20 domestic violence-related deaths each year.  As this snapshot illustrates, victims come from a range of geographic areas, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and types of relationships (including same-sex partners, parents and children, and bystanders or interveners).  In an effort to capture the complexities and full context of domestic violence deaths, the definition of domestic violence-related homicide used by Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, encompasses deaths within all relationships characterized by power and control (intimate partner or otherwise), including deaths of perpetrators whether by suicide, police, or self-defense of the victim.

In order to build a more comprehensive community-based response to domestic violence, we need to recognize that every victim has a story.  Therefore, the needs of every victim are different. We need to develop and fund services which are nonjudgmental, inclusive, and culturally and linguistically appropriate.  But more importantly, we need to listen to each victim, validate her/his concerns, and support them in identifying and accessing services which are tailored to their individual situation.  We won’t solve the problem of domestic violence homicide anytime soon, but we can take action to make it easier and safer for victims to come forward—before it is too late.

Support for anyone affected by domestic violence is available 24/7 by calling SafeLink at 1-800-785-2020.

To learn more about domestic violence homicide prevention efforts in Massachusetts, visit Jane Doe’s website.

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