About 40 people died due to domestic violence in Colorado
DENVER (AP) — Cameras from news stations across the country packed into the halls of the Weld County Court House on a chilly November day to record the sentencing of a Frederick man convicted of killing his wife, Shanann Watts, and their two young daughters. Onlookers lined up early before the hearing in hopes of getting a seat in the packed courtroom. Thousands joined online discussion groups to debate every minute detail of the case.
Three days later a Woodland Park woman, Kelsey Berreth, disappeared. Soon, her photos appeared on national newscasts and in newspapers as reporters closely tracked her disappearance and the later arrest of her fiancé on allegations he killed her.
But at least 38 other people were killed in Colorado last year in connection to domestic violence, according to a preliminary count by the Denver Metro Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team. Many of those deaths received no such national attention and, in some cases, even little local coverage. Experts and advocates in the field say it’s not uncommon for the disappearance and deaths of women such as Berreth and Watts — white, young and seemingly well-off — to garner disproportionate media focus and public interest compared with others.
“Certain lives matter and certain lives don’t,” said DoraLee Larson, executive director of the Denver Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, which conducts the city’s annual fatality review. “That may be crass, but there is some truth to it. It’s absolutely a class, race and gender issue.”
Between 2013 and 2016, a total of 100 Colorado women — nearly half of all female homicide victims in the state — were killed by a current or former intimate partner, data from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation show. National statistics collected by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence show that about a third of all female murder victims in the U.S. are killed by an intimate partner.
But the fatality review team includes a much wider range of fatalities stemming from domestic violence, including people killed by their partner, victims who died by suicide to escape abuse, abusers who kill themselves or another in an attempt to hurt their victim, and other bystanders killed in a domestic violence incident. The number of people killed in Colorado in connection to domestic violence hovers around 40 every year and has remained consistent for at least the past five years, aside from a spike in 2016 caused by a rise in homicides in Denver, Larson said.
It’s difficult to determine trends in the data, Larson said, besides the fact that women are far more likely to be the victims and that guns are often used in the killings. Most victims had never reached out to domestic violence services or told many people — if any — about the abuse they were facing before they were killed, she said.
In 2018, the review team’s list includes Berreth and Watts, as well as a woman from Hotchkiss whose boyfriend is charged with strangling her and dumping her body in Utah behind some tree stumps. Five days before Berreth’s disappearance was reported, a Denver man was arrested for allegedly killing his girlfriend in their apartment, putting her body in the trunk of his car and driving to Wyoming, where he was taken into custody.
Neither of those cases received national attention, and stories in Colorado news media, including The Denver Post, were far more limited than coverage of the deaths of Watts and Berreth.
In general, news media and the public have consistently given more attention to domestic violence homicides when the victims or perpetrators are white and come from more affluent backgrounds, said Angela Gover, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Colorado Denver who studies intimate partner violence and public perception.
A November 2018 study conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute analyzed media coverage of cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women from urban areas in the U.S., including 12 cases from Denver. Analysts found that only 5 percent of cases received national or international media attention and that only a quarter of cases received any attention at all.
Only 8 percent of the 506 cases included in the study were tied to domestic violence, but the study states that institutional racism in the media contributes to a lack of accurate data on the killings and disappearances.
“Combined with the inaccessibility of law enforcement data, this lack of reporting leads the general public to have an inaccurate understanding of the issue, and over two-thirds of the cases that happen in urban areas are rendered invisible,” the report states.
Viewers and news organizations also tend to pay more attention to victims that are seen as faultless, such as young women, children or the elderly, said Michelle Jeanis, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who studies crime and media.
People often like to pin blame on a victim to make sense of a crime and to feel like such an act couldn’t happen to them, she said. But people can’t rationalize a crime if a victim is seen as blameless, which creates a sense of fear that compels people to pay attention to the story, she said.
“We like to attribute blame in society to an individual,” she said. “When we have an ideal victim, it makes it harder to believe those things.”
Victims of domestic violence should never bear any of the blame for their abuse, said Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
“It’s just so heartbreaking, if someone is killed and is already from a marginalized community, their death basically goes unnoticed,” she said. “That victim’s life is as valuable as the middle-class neighbor who on paper looks like they have a squeaky clean past.”
Domestic homicides often rise to national media attention if they take place in an upscale neighborhood because people still believe that people with higher incomes do not experience domestic violence, Southworth said.
“That’s absolute bunk,” she said. “It happens in every community.”
Along with news reporters, the public also needs to critically think about how they consume the news, she added.
“We need to hold ourselves accountable and not skim over the headlines if the victim doesn’t remind us of ourselves,” Southworth said.
In Colorado, domestic violence fatalities have far-reaching consequences for surviving family members and friends, Larson said. Last year, at least seven children in Colorado homes witnessed or were in the home when a killing occurred.
“There has to be a real holistic, community, systematic response to this issue or it’s never going to stop,” she said.
Part of the solution is more local review teams analyzing domestic violence fatalities in their communities and using that information in prevention, Larson said. The Denver team is one of three local groups in Colorado that work with the state Colorado Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, which was established in 2017 and published its first report in November.
The Denver team collected much of the data for the state report, but staff sizing and funding shortages prevent the team from completing an in-depth analysis of every case in the state, Larson said.
“We’re really trying to motivate or compel new teams to start pretty much anywhere and everywhere that makes sense in Colorado,” Larson said.