The Los Angeles district attorney office’s reprehensible decision to release Curtis Harris, a convicted felon with a history of domestic violence who subsequently murdered his estranged wife then took his own life, is another indictment of the criminal justice system’s failure to protect the lives of abused women of color. Last week Harris and his wife Monica Thomas-Harris, who were both African American, were found dead in a West Covina motel, the result of an apparent murder-suicide. Although the egregiousness of the case represents a troubling setback for the prosecution of domestic violence, it has special implications for black women, who represent less than 8 percent of the U.S. population yet comprise 20 percent of intimate partner homicide victims.
While there is much sociological analysis of the institutional failures of the criminal justice system when it comes to treatment of black male victims and offenders, the plight of black women crime victims (who are more likely to be the victims of murder, abuse and sexual assault than are women of any other racial subgroup), falls through the public policy cracks. According to the University of Minnesota Institute of Domestic
Violence in the African American Community, African-American women experience intimate partner violence at rates 35% higher than their white counterparts. Intimate partner homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 15 to 45. One factor in this phenomenon is the disproportionate numbers of black men who are incarcerated, making black women who are estranged from their partners particularly vulnerable to intimate partner abuse. Parolees who have been charged with domestic violence or other violent crimes are more likely to pursue coercive relationships with their current or former partners, thus leading to re-offense.
However, the black community’s historic apprehensiveness towards law enforcement and the criminal justice system often contributes to black women’s unwillingness to report intimate partner abuse. In addition, the perception that incarcerated black men will be caught up in a racist oppressive system, thus depriving families of a source of livelihood and subjecting black women to scorn for “exposing” domestic violence within the community, is also a barrier to full disclosure.
The Harris case exhibited some of the classic signs of female ambivalence, fear and shame that enshroud the reporting and prosecution of domestic violence. When Harris was initially brutalized by her husband, she waited to report the incident to the police, believing that the incident would not happen again and perhaps fearing that there would be no would be no meaningful criminal action taken against him. On the second occasion when he abducted and attacked her with a stun gun in November she reported the incident to the police. Tragically, Thomas-Harris’ fears were realized when the prosecutor and judge overseeing the case erred in allowing Harris to be released from jail after he agreed to plead guilty to the charge of false imprisonment and possession of a firearm in the November attack.
The chain of gross negligence in the case is unconscionable, as the courts essentially gave an offender who had a long history of harassment and brutality a get out of jail free pass to “get his affairs in order” for thirty days. Although Harris was told not to contact his spouse, there is no indication that the court attempted to enforce a protective order against him or notify Thomas-Harris about his release.
Thomas-Harris pursued justice against her former spouse, and, as is often the case with domestic violence victims, was re-victimized by the system’s criminal failure to protect her life. The district attorney’s office and the county courts must answer to the family and to the community as to why this innocent woman’s life was worth sacrificing for the personal convenience of a felon granted a thirty day license to kill.
– Sikivu Hutchinson can be contacted at