Editor's note: This is a statement by Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Kristin Lyons, executive director of the Women’s Center of Rhode Island.
To the editor:
First and foremost, our hearts go out to the family, friends and community of Michelle Busby. Though not much has yet been released about her murder, her death is a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go to achieve a Rhode Island that is free of violence in the home and free of intimate partner violence.
Domestic violence escalates to the point of murder because our system has failed to either keep a victim safe or hold an abuser accountable. In the case of Ms. Busby’s death, we know that the alleged perpetrator, Andrew Jett, was arrested in 1992 and convicted and sentenced to 40 years in 1995 for the brutal beating murder of Stephanie Oxendine, his off-and-on girlfriend with whom he had two children. What remains unclear is why he served so little time for the killing; records indicate that Mr. Jett was released on parole in 2010 after only serving 18 years.
This gray area is part of a series of important questions that this case helps bring to the surface. Why wasn’t Mr. Jett’s original charge documented as a domestic violence crime given the nature of the relationship between Mr. Jett and Ms. Oxendine – which clearly met the standards of the Domestic Violence Prevention Act? What are the parole board’s considerations when releasing the perpetrator of such a brutal act? Did Mr. Jett have disciplinary infractions while incarcerated, and, if so, how did that impact his eligibility for being released early into the community. There are also questions about the systems that were supposed to monitor Mr. Jett after he was released. Was the state aware Mr. Jett was living with Ms. Busby (his residence should have been known as part of the supervision mandated for violent offenders)? What are the standards for approving private community service options for violent criminals?
All too often, victims may be hesitant to contact the police for many reasons, including fears of retaliation from the abuser, insecurities about losing support from the abuser or developing guilt about the possibility of his/her incarceration. In addition, victims may lack faith in the system when they see that people are let out early and are able to reoffend. That is why we are concerned about the policies carried out during the parole process and why we are calling for a thorough review of parole protocols and procedures. In cases of domestic violence, we need systems to assess an abuser’s dangerousness and prevent future instances.
We question, in this case, what could have been done to keep the victim safe. Leniency unfortunately sends the message to abusers that they will not be held accountable for their crimes, while simultaneously jeopardizing the safety of victims. But we also recognize that eliminating violence against women demands a comprehensive and coordinated effort between elected and appointed officials, government and non-government organizations and agencies, community leaders, businesses, public organizations and private citizens. The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and its six member agencies are here to help through a wide array of services, including analysis and monitoring of the legal system, support groups, emergency shelters, and a 24-hour hotline to support victims and answer questions. We urge all Rhode Islanders to remember that if they hear or see someone being hurt to call 911 immediately, and if they or someone they know needs support to call 800-494-8100.