Legal system officials’ response to Michelle O’Connell’s death as documented in Two Gunshots on a Summer Night is shocking and shameful (New York Times, November 24, 2013). Authorities involved in this case should be held accountable for failing to diligently investigate the tragic death of a young mother in the presence of her deputy sheriff-boyfriend, with whom she had just broken up. Too many indicators of a domestic homicide were present to ignore them.
The Advocates for Human Rights frequently sees this type of conduct by legal system officials in countries around the world with whom The Advocates is just beginning to pass laws and improve community responses to domestic violence. These countries often have no laws on domestic violence, few resources or shelters, and little public awareness about domestic violence. In the United States, however, where there has been more than 40 years of learning and reform on domestic violence, there is no excuse for the conduct described in Two Gunshots on a Summer Night.
On the night of her death, Ms. O’Connell had ended a relationship with Jeremy Banks, a deputy sheriff in Florida. Present at the scene, Mr. Banks called the police to report the shooting, and based solely on Mr. Bank’s statement, Ms. O’Connell’s death was filed as a suicide. The article reports that the responding police officers did not investigate for domestic violence, despite information provided by the victim’s family and a report by Mr. Banks that they were arguing and she had just told him she was leaving him.
The article goes on to tell the devastating story and fight for justice by Ms. O’Connell’s family and how their desperate pleas have been continually ignored by the police and prosecutors.
A special investigation by the New York Times and the PBS investigative news program, “Frontline,” found that Ms. O’Connell’s case was mishandled from the start – that police, the sheriff, and medical examiners all failed to effectively investigate and respond to Ms. O’Connell’s death. For example, evidence was not tested for DNA, fingerprints, or gunpowder residue; witnesses were not interviewed until too late; and multiple theories were created to make the case fit with a suicide despite the overwhelming evidence that it was a suspicious death.
“A Death in St. Augustine,” a “Frontline” documentary produced in conjunction with the New York Times article, will premiere at 10 p.m., tonight, Tuesday, November 26, on most PBS stations. The full film is online now.
Since the early 1970s, we have been working in the United States to improve the legal system’s response to domestic violence. We have made great strides, training police and prosecutors, changing laws and policies, and building awareness. Ms. O’Connell’s case is an embarrassment to the State of Florida and a dangerous precedent.
Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, kicking off the 16 Days Against Gender Violence Campaign. For the next 16 days, we will share stories like Ms. O’Connell’s and promote activities that each of us can do to raise the collective awareness of violence against women.
To commemorate the day and start the campaign, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement:
“I welcome the chorus of voices calling for an end to the violence that affects an estimated one in three women in her lifetime. I applaud leaders who are helping to enact and enforce laws and change mindsets. And I pay tribute to all those heroes around the world who help victims to heal and to become agents of change.”