Wednesday, October 29, 2008

YOUR TURN: When a Convicted Killer's Wrong Makes a School Teacher Write

by Narelle Bitunjac

When I open the mailbox and see another letter from John, I always feel lucky. Aside from the fact that his letters are intriguing, there’s something special about someone taking the time to hand write a message and send it by post. Of course, e-mail isn’t an option for John—he’s housed in a prison.

I’m usually terrible at correspondence and rarely remember to send birthday cards. So it was out of character for me, an Australian school teacher, to initiate a "pen pal" relationship with anyone, never mind a complete stranger who resides in an American prison, convicted of murdering his wife.

My interest in John began after I watched a documentary about his trial. His case seemed extraordinary and I couldn’t get him or his situation out of my mind.

I had conversations with friends about John and the fact that he was an intelligent, articulate man who had no history of violence. We analyzed testimony that supported John’s assertion that he loved his wife. We tried to figure out why he’d been convicted given that the physical evidence was inconclusive and the prosecution’s case seemed patchy.

It wasn’t long before I began to feel uncomfortable that I’d become emotionally invested in John’s life and he didn’t know anything about mine. I'd hoped that writing a letter of introduction would balance the scales. It did.

Over the last two and a half years, our correspondence has grown into a friendship. We discovered early on that we were both working in a teaching capacity. He was teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills to inmates and I was teaching much the same thing to my second-graders.

Our early conversations about teaching slowly moved onto more personal subjects. I wrote to him about life as a newlywed and he wrote back about his adult children and the realities of prison life.

The prison stories were usually shocking, sometimes frightening but occasionally funny. I remember that I burst out laughing when he revealed that "chick lit" and romance novels were the most popular books in the prison library. “Closest thing the inmates can get to porn,” he explained.

As interesting as writing to John was, it wasn’t bringing me any closer to understanding how he ended up convicted of domestic homicide. If anything, our friendship made his conviction more difficult to comprehend.

To learn more about domestic homicide and the men who commit it, I began reading court transcripts, academic papers and media reports. In observance of Domestic Violence month, I will share some tips on how women in abusive relationships can lower the risk of homicide:

· Don’t live with an abuse partner. Refusing to live with an abuser significantly lowers the risk of abuse becoming fatal;

· Treat any abuse during pregnancy as an absolute deal breaker;

· Report domestic violence. The incidence of domestic homicide is lower in men who have been charged with abuse;

· Take death threats seriously;

· Hide or remove all guns and ammunition from the home;

· Keep your plan to leave a secret and leave when your partner is not home;

· Take extra care for the first 12 months after separation, especially if the abuser is controlling;

· Take action: speak out and seek help from friends, family, police, and local domestic violence agencies.

I soon discovered that the crime John was convicted of was intimate partner homicide, not domestic homicide. Intimate partner homicide and domestic homicide are erroneously thought to be the same.

Intimate partner homicide involves killing a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend and happens at a rate of more than three per day in the United States.

Domestic homicide is a broader term and refers to the killing of children, extended family, current partners, and suicide.

I expected to see a history of controlling and violent behavior in relationships ending in homicides. However, I was surprised to learn how often abuse during pregnancy preceded homicide. In fact, recent studies have revealed that homicide is the number one cause of death for pregnant women.

Having never been a victim of abuse, I've found it difficult to understand why women in abusive relationships don’t just leave. Yet statistics confirm what victims know instinctively–the risk of homicide spikes significantly when a woman leaves an abuser. Violent men don’t step aside and let their partners walk out.

Although this information provided me with some insight into intimate partner homicide, I didn’t feel any closer to understanding why John had been convicted as none of the predictors of homicide applied to his relationship.

I kept reading and eventually found a flip side to the crime lurking in the details of the high-profile cases, those cases which attracted major media attention because the accused wasn’t a serial abuser who’d gone too far. Without a history of violence, the flip-side murders initially seemed random and unbelievable. But there was a common thread, and while it wasn’t as blatant as bruises and broken bones, it was there.

In every case, the accused could be described as: a habitual liar, narcissistic, unfaithful, materialistic, egocentric, charming and manipulative with absolutely no regard for anyone else.

Who doesn’t tell the occasional white lie, flirt every once in a while and think of themselves first? That’s not the same as being a pathological liar, an unrelenting cheat and narcissistic beyond what could be considered a normal level of self interest.

In contrast to the serial abuser, who seeks complete control over his wife, it seems these men wanted to be rid of their wives. They used murder as a cheaper and more permanent alternative to divorce. Most stood to gain financially via life insurance, avoiding costly property settlements, or sidestepping alimony and child support. The "cheaper than divorce" theory is strengthened when you consider that the victims either had children or were pregnant at the time they were of murdered.

I’m still writing to John and given our friendship, I have lost my perspective in terms of his guilt or innocence. A friend asked me recently what I’d do if John told me he was guilty.

I said that John and I rarely discuss his case but if he did confide in me, I would continue writing.

Apart from my friendship with John, which I consider genuine, any details he shared would help me realize my goal of fully understanding this complex crime and sharing that understanding with other women.

Narelle Bitunjac is a 41-year-old elementary school teacher from Sydney, Australia. She is a member of the Domestic Violence Coalition Committee and actively supports its campaign for the introduction of Domestic Violence Fatality Review teams in Australia. This is Narelle's first published piece, written for Women in Crime Ink and subsequently accepted for publication with a quarterly women's journal, Honestly Woman, "an Australian magazine for enterprising women."


Anonymous said...

Narele - this is interesting. I have a question. why is it your goal to understand domestic violence? if youve never been a victim of abuse.....I'm curious about why do you think you have an interest in it. Thank you for writing.

Anonymous said...

Poor John with no email option and only "chick lits" for porn...why must John suffer so?

Oh, that's right! John murdered his wife...

Narelle Bitunjac said...

"if youve never been a victim of abuse.....I'm curious about why do you think you have an interest in it. Thank you for writing."

In my opinion, domestic violence is a dreadful betrayal of trust and its effects are devastating. Given what's known about domestic homicide - it seems largely preventable. I believe it's a matter of public awareness. We all know how to lower our cholesterol to increase our life expectancy. Women are well educated about breast and cervical cancers but what about intimate partner and domestic homicide? Given the rate that these crimes occur, women need to know more about these crimes.

Furthermore, Australia needs to get with the program and establish Domestic Violence Fatality Review Teams (DVFRTs) like the U.S. have. DVFRT’s seem to have having a positive impact on the number domestic and intimate partner homicides.

Thanks for reading and commenting anonymous.


Leah said...

I can't help but believe that it has hurt women to be raised with all the fairy tales about meeting their prince charming one day, planning their lavish weddings before they even start kindergarden and getting hope chests at 7 years old. If this BS would change DV might not be so rampant. The sad truth is that too many of us think we are nothing without a man, that we are absolutely supposed to marry one day and that men can take better care of us than we can take care of ourselves. When this attitude changes and women start truly putting themselves first they won't be as apt to take crap from a man and when they see the warning signs while dating, they will acknowledge and confront them rather than pretend it doesn't exist. And hopefully women will also quit jumping into bed with men they don't know and shacking up after the first date.

Pat Brown said...

I think the courting period should be at least two years: two years of kind behavior, two years of getting no money off the woman or man, two years of being honest and open and decent, two years of allowing your fiance to learn about you from your family, friends, and coworkers, two years of not moving in together, and, oh, dare I say it, two years of no sex? Well, at least no sex for a long while until the relationship is a proven one, long-term, and intending marriage or monogamy.

If these were dating standards, we would have a whole new ball game, and best of all, children wouldn't be subjected to physical and sexual abuse by low life stepfathers and mothers.

Jan said...

The paragraph about the charming greedy person who seems to kill out of nowhere is eerily familiar. But it describes a woman, and not a man. It sounds just like my daughter-in-law who killed my son and both of their little ones just over a year ago. People who write about domestic violence sometimes forget that sometimes the woman is the abuser, not the abused. It's made worse by the fact that men are supposed to be macho and "take it". My son never asked for help. I don't think it occured to him to ask. Now it is too late, for all three of my boys.

Narelle Bitunjac said...

You make a good point Jan. It is easy to forget that men are sometimes victims of this crime. Thanks for remind me.

Shreela said...

I was friendly with an abused woman who claimed she wanted to get her and her children away from her abusive husband. She was afraid of what might happen if he found out she was planning on leaving, so she was careful about things.

She and I discussed different ways to get away from him, how to stay hidden from him, ect... (this was before the internet, so it wasn't as easy to find information, but at least she didn't have to learn how to cover her tracks on a computer and internet).

She and the kids disappeared without telling anyone, including me. Our friends at work asked me about her, but I was in the dark as much as they were.

Her husband showed up at work, looking for me! He had been drinking, and was very agitated -- some men at work had to stand between him and me because he was convinced I knew where she was.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Wife Stabbed 222 Times by Spouse, but Media Doesn't Call It 'Domestic Violence' Because...

...her spouse was another woman.

There are nearly 2,000 online references to the recent stabbing murder of Jessica Kalish by Carol Anne Burger, but not one media outlet to date has used either the phrase "domestic violence" or "domestic homicide" in connection with the killing.

Kalish was stabbed 222 times by Burger, but I guess it's only "domestic violence" if a man does it. Yet according to Dr. Donald Dutton, author of Rethinking Domestic Violence, "Research shows that domestic violence is actually more common in lesbian relationships than in heterosexual relationships."

Kalish and Burger had married in Massachusetts in 2005, but apparently Kalish had met another woman.

There are many stories on this killing--one of the better ones is the Palm Beach Post's Police: Ex-lover killed woman in rage (10/29/08).

I also note that violence by women against men is much more common than is thought.

Quote: "As for the risk of being killed, an outcome that occurs in a statistically nugatory number of cases, in the U.S. rates of spousal homicide are almost equal. In Canada, in 2006, out of 605 murders, 78 were spousal homicides - a trifling figure in a country of 35 million people. The total for the women - 56 - is 6 fewer than in 2005, and represents the fifth consecutive annual decline in numbers of women killed. But spousal homicides were up altogether in 2006, because more men were killed by women. Killings of male partners by women increased from 12 in 2005 to 21 in 2006. That is a significant leap, yet Stats Can did not flag the unusual jump in figures, a notable omission, given that the reverse situation - an upward tick in women's deaths - would certainly have been made much of."

Now for the children:

"As the Associated Press article on the Gilberta Estrada murders notes, in recent years there has been a spate of Texas women murdering their children, and not one was held criminally culpable for her actions:

In 2004, Dena Schlosser fatally severed her 10-month-old daughter's arms with a kitchen knife.

In 2003, Deanna Laney beat her two young sons to death with stones in East Texas.

In 2003, Lisa Ann Diaz drowned her daughters in a Plano bathtub.

In 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the family's Houston bathtub.

All four were found not guilty by reason of insanity.

In addition, recently Dee Etta Perez, 39, shot her three children, ages 4, 9 and 10, before killing herself, and Gilberta Estrada murdered three of her daughters."

(From Glenn Sacks Blog)

Let us all stand against ALL violence, not just one particular sort.

Narelle Bitunjac said...

I wanted to thank Women in Crime Ink for giving me the opportunity to write for this blog. I had an idea for an article and submitted it. With the help of Kathryn Casey and the encouragement of Vanessa Leggett, I ended up with the Dear John piece which appeared simultaneously in print (in Australia) and here on this blog. Thanks again to Women in Crime Ink.

Anonymous said...

Narelle ought to keep to fund raising for DV and well away from correction services inmates.

There are people who just cannot tune in to complex dynamics involving pathalogical behaviours and their complex etiology as well as various potentials of expression.

Much like the personality disordered, Narelle chillingly has gleaned a lot of facts of a limited stream dealing with this field, yet fails to demonstrate any personal understanding of victims or perpetrtators

Those who are exposed to the perpetrators or the victims of violence do learn to understand that there are with violence "the many shades of green".

There is one thing the abuse and violence against another share, is the perpetrator's sense of distorted entitlement of their wants being of greater importance than the respect of another's right for autonomy, involving distorted justifications to enact abuse,the hurting of another.

There are the desperate reactor perpetrators, who in this field are the readily identifiable ones.It the scales up to the psycopathic personality disordered ones.These with their massive narcissistic sense of entitlement.
This latter type are utterly with no concience about what they do to another.

These, the psycopathic personality disordered (PPD), are often the best at concealing their capacity for trangressing the rights of others, as well as appearing to the niave being such a lovely person. That is in in superficial interactions, as well as the best at repeating denials - regardless of the evidence.

Frequently the PPDs evade detection, untill their false sense of superiority eventualy under estimates law enforcement abilities by too much in not covering up with enough effort.
Part of this happens because they get away with a lot and miss the threshold where accumulative acts of theirs are reaching suspions and let go - unchallenged, via insufficient evidence to challenge them fully. Hence feeling safe to get sloppy and are surprised when they are nabbed.

It is this type who is the immutable abuser, who mostly can control when he abuses and how.
This one is the one with utterly no respect for another, devoid of empathy and for some sectors dealing with domestic violence and courts the hardest to grasp and treat. Though this is improving of late.

The frazzled reactor using abuse to control has amongst it's group some who can be worked with to achieve improved behaviours and attitudes.Others end up being too entrenched in such patterns, though aware it's not fair or right to treat others so.

The "lovely incarcerated man" has two sources, psycopathy is one,the othera type of projective/introjected idealisation of what is idealistically good. Even would truly like to be so( untill tested by real life)as a contrast to the revulsion of personal failures and weaknesses.

In my work in prisons I've been amazed at how for this latter type can envisage such goodness and loving, these ideals plus writing about such so well.
A desperate way of keeping some , any persons connected to themselves.
The reality is actually brief, one drop of real life and all evaporates.
Psychopaths and concious manipulators can play the same, though its only on a purely instrumental level.