When Ronald Lee Haskell was accused of killing six members of his ex-wife’s family in Texas this month, I wondered how long it would take for a news report to suggest that the suspect had “snapped.” The scope and horror of the crime — the victims included four children ages 4 to 14 — meant it took a little while for this media narrative to show up. But there it was, two days later, familiar from innumerable stories of domestic violence that end in murder. An Alaska TV station gathered the observations of childhood friends, who described the youthful Haskell as funny, compassionate and religiously devout, then cited one friend’s observation that “Haskell must have snapped.” The reporter let the description hang there, and closed the piece, as if a single verb said it all. Rarely does a single word attempt to explain so much and fail so completely.
Much of the language the media uses to explain domestic homicides falls short – or worse, makes the murders seem less shocking by rationalizing them. Sometimes, reporters frame such murders in the language of romance. When a Yale lab tech strangled a doctoral student in 2009 and stuffed her body behind a wall, the New York Post described him as “lovelorn,” and called the killing a case of “unrequited love.” That ain’t love. In 2001, a California man who allegedly fractured his wife’s skull, then apparently committed suicide-by-cop, was just the victim of his own passion. “This is the story of Dan McGovern,” the San Jose Mercury News wrote, “who friends and family say, loved cars, cops, guns and most of all, the woman he met after paying $3,000 to a professional matchmaking service.”
The desire to put such killings in the context of normal relationships is in some ways understandable. Reporters seek to offer a why that readers and viewers will relate to, in addition to the what and when. But most relationships don’t follow arcs involving fractured skulls and shoot-outs, and by attempting to make such stories relatable, the murderers are handed extenuating circumstances that seem to minimize their responsibility. Just last month, when an Indiana man killed his ex-wife and her new boyfriend in a packed bar during a high school reunion, the New York Daily News described him as a “scorned” man embarking on a “revenge killing,” as if double murder is the natural fruit of jealousy.
When Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his infant daughter’s mother and then himself, an AP headline said his violence was “triggered by money, trust issues” and quoted Belcher’s other girlfriend saying the victim “knew exactly how to press his buttons.” That comes awfully close to suggesting the murdered woman brought it on herself. A few years back, a New York magazine article about a 1976 stabbing murder of a Peace Corps volunteer by a fellow volunteer called this the “anybody-can-snap theory” – the notion that any man, if he were broke enough, lonely enough, or sufficiently bewildered by life’s stresses – might stab the erstwhile object of his affections, in this case 22 times.
Why does this matter? The way we frame such crimes affects how we understand them. A 2003 study of how two California newspapers covered domestic violence cases pointed out that news stories suggesting that a batterer “‘snapped,’ acting out of character; or that he was prompted by passion or love, or by an attempt to save the relationship or keep his children” effectively “let the perpetrator off the hook.” The irony is that battered women often do blame themselves, or make excuses for the men beating them, or hope their husband’s behavior is a fluke, not to be repeated. News stories that emphasize that twisted reading of the facts makes it harder for those women to imagine their account will be believed.
Which brings us back to Ronald Lee Haskell. Police say he was looking for his ex-wife when he allegedly killed her sister, her sister’s husband and four of the couple’s five children in a Houston suburb on July 9. “[A]uthorities said they believed the shooting rampage was tied to Haskell’s disintegrating family situation,” a piece in the Los Angeles Times observed, getting it exactly backwards, since Haskell appears to have caused that disintegration. He’d been arrested for assaulting his wife, was deemed a threat to his kids by a judge, and his own mother alleged that he tied her up and choked her.
Reporters don’t do readers a service by painting a portrait of a normal, even-tempered guy who was like any one of us, until he wasn’t. The context for the Haskell story, and so many others, is domestic violence, which is not a crime of passion, but in many ways the opposite. “It’s power and control, that’s what it’s all about,” says Jane Aoyama-Martin, the executive director of the Pace Women’s Justice Center, which provides legal services to victims of domestic and elder abuse. “It sort of creeps along, and it escalates during the relationship.” It’s when a woman tries to leave that she’s most likely to be killed – the batterer reaches for the ultimate control, life and death. In the case of Haskell’s ex-wife, the abuser kept coming after they’d divorced, and she was trying to start her life over. The results are a tragedy times six.
Libby Copeland, a former Washington Post staff writer, is a writer in New York.