Coming to Terms With Domestic Abuse : The Simpson case highlights misconceptions about wife battering; a new law will help

Although many feared that the acquittal of O.J. Simpson of charges that he murdered his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman would diminish concern about domestic abuse, quite the opposite is true. In events from the White House to Los Angeles marking National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, lawmakers are demonstrating that they now understand that physical abuse within a relationship is neither a trivial matter nor a private, family affair. Nonetheless, the tidal wave of comment since last Tuesday's verdict has left behind some distressing misconceptions about domestic violence.

The Simpsons' relationship was punctuated by violence. Many Americans have now heard the tape of Nicole Simpson's 911 call with Simpson threatening her in the background. We have seen the photographs of her bruised face following a beating by Simpson. And we know that in 1989, Simpson pleaded no contest to beating Nicole and was placed on probation.

Prosecutors in Simpson's trial hoped that jurors would see a direct connection between these incidents and Nicole's murder. Lawyers for Simpson largely dismissed the violence, likening it to the ups and downs in every marriage. The jurors who have spoken out since the verdict say they acquitted Simpson because holes in the prosecution's case left reasonable doubt about his guilt. Defense lawyers in their post-verdict statements have also focused on these evidentiary holes. But in dismissing the salience of domestic violence to this case, they demean the severity of the problem.

Defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, interviewed last week, responded angrily to the accusation that Simpson is a wife beater: "This is not a wife batterer, this is a guy who at 3 o'clock in the morning, on New Year's morning after a party with too much to drink . . . got in an argument with her and hit her." Not a wife beater?

Juror Brenda Moran made a similarly troubling statement when asked about the role of abuse in this case. "This was a murder trial," she said, "not domestic abuse." Yet between 1988 and 1991, 42% of murdered women were killed by their intimate male partners. Domestic abuse too often goes beyond hitting to murder.

New laws and a new, less forgiving attitude by prosecutors and judges can help stop the cycle of violence. Last week Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill that, beginning Jan. 1, will require even first-time batterers to face court charges and participate in counseling. Perhaps now the biggest remaining obstacles to greater progress against domestic violence are ignorance and denial.

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