End Gendered Violence: We Won’t Wait for Judgment Day


The murder ballad, Pretty Polly, as imagined by Thomas Hart Benton.

The Juneau Empire is running a story today about the trial of Robert D. Kowalski. In 1996, Kowalski shot his girlfriend, Sandra M. Perry, to death, but because he maintained that her death was accidental, he was not charged. At the time, he claimed he was aiming at a bear outside the window of their room in Yakutat, and accidentally shot her instead. Then, in 2008, he shot his next girlfriend, Lorraine Kay Morin, to death, this time in Montana, but again claimed that his act was unintentional. Even so, the similarities between the two deaths caused Alaska prosecutors recently to reopen the 1996 case. They are trying him now, and the case may go to the jury today while I’m in Juneau.

Several incidents connected with the case are troubling to this sociologist: 1) Alaska State Troopers destroyed the evidence from the 1996 case in 1998, so jurors have been instructed to consider that fact as ‘favorable’ to Kowalski; 2) today’s news report focuses unduly on the fact that the first murder victim had been taking amphetamines and drinking alcohol; 3) the couple had argued before Kowalski murdered the first girlfriend; 4) the couple had been arguing before Kowalski killed the second girlfriend; 5) news accounts frame both murders as incidents involving “domestic disputes.”

Now, REALLY, folks! There is some sociological analysis necessary here.

1) Why did the troopers destroy evidence for a case that was essentially unresolved (no charges), only two years afterwards? Is storage space so limited in Alaska, the largest state in the union, that they had to clear out space for other crime scene evidence? Was the evidence destroyed because femicide is so ordinary and routine in Alaska (highest rate of gendered violence in the US) that some trooper evidence person just shrugged and said, oh well, just one less box of stuff we need to keep? And why was the jury then instructed to consider the destroyed evidence, meaning lack of evidence, as ‘favorable’ to Kowalski? At a previous hearing, Kowalski’s defense attorney, apparently with no intentional irony, worried that allowing evidence at the new trial would be “unfairly prejudicial” to his client:

“It is not difficult at all to make a logical argument — forgetting the rules of evidence, forgetting hundreds of years of jurisprudence — to make a logical argument that we would all make in our daily lives, that is: ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ That’s not hard argument to make,” Hedland said in court. “But that, your Honor, is exactly why it’s so prejudicial. Because that’s such a knee-jerk thing. Because it’s so easy to get there. Because it’s so easy to go to, ‘This guy’s just a killer.’ It’s just the danger of unfair prejudice is that much more exponentially present.”

Well, yes, Mr. Defense Attorney Hedland, it does look like this guy is just a killer. Note that one of his ex-wives is the one who ratted on him and called the prosecutor’s attention to the first murder. All of us present here want fair legal processes. Destroying evidence that is only two-years old is not an element of fair process. The Fiddling Sociologist calls for an investigation into why the Alaska State Troopers were allowed to destroy evidence, as well as why the fact that the evidence was destroyed must be viewed as ‘favorable’ to Kowalski by the jury.

2) Today’s news story summarizes the toxicology reports from the 1996 case. Apparently the troopers didn’t destroy that evidence. The news article is not as bad as some in using the “unworthy of victim status because she was high/drunk” trope that is often used to divert empathy away from female victims. But still… Why go into this at all?  A woman gets hepped up on amphetamines, gets drunk, and that becomes a justifiable reason to kill her? Perhaps in the argument she shouted at him, maybe called him names, and so okay, any man could be excused for killing the b*tch? Sociologist Danielle Dirks has thoroughly undone the alcohol/drugs killed/raped her with a great infogram that analyzes what causes rape. The summary of the infogram? 100% of rape is caused by rapists. Thus in the Kowalski murder cases, 100% of the murders were caused by the murderer.

3) and 4) The couple had been arguing. In most every incident involving gendered violence, mainstream media reports frame the victim’s behavior being half of the cause of her death. She was arguing with him, so yeah, of course he killed her. I have yet to see a news story frame a bank robbery in a parallel manner: “The bank was openly involved in money transactions at the time of the robbery.” Or a mugging: “At the time he was mugged, he was displaying the cash he had just gotten from an ATM.” (Thanks to Anne Munch for the mugging analogy.)

5) The phrase “domestic dispute” is a dangerous framing of gendered violence. A dispute more properly describes a mild disagreement over the terms of something. You and your neighbor could have a dispute over exactly where your shared property lines are located. A student and a professor may have a dispute over the student’s performance on an exam. Partners could have a dispute over which brand of paper towels to purchase for their home. None of these types of disputes rise to any level of seriousness. But add the word, “domestic” to the phrase, and dispute becomes dangerously gendered. And often, excusable because of how the practices of patriarchy have shaped our societies. In more than one Alaska newspaper (the Sun-Star and Fairbanks News-Miner are both guilty of this) the phrase “domestic dispute” is applied to cases of gendered violence even when the parties are not domestic partners at all, but simply have a history of dating.

The news reports about Kowalski’s crimes remind me of how much work feminism and other progressive social movements have left to do to solve the problem of gendered violence. I teach about gendered violence in most of my sociology classes. My SOC 100X students are especially knowledgeable about gendered violence as they watched the Anne Munch film, “Naming the Unnamed Conspirator” and also attended an excellent lecture by Danielle Dirks entitled, “Networked Survivors Fighting for Reform: The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement.” I have spoken at Take Back the Night rallies, marched in parades, lobbied legislators, and even protested at a Rolling Stones concert back in the 1970s (they were promoting their new album with billboards picturing a battered women saying, “I’m black and blue from the Rolling Stones and I love it!”) I’ve written op-eds for newspapers, worked as a victims’ advocate at a women’s shelter, designed brochures and flyers against rape, written grants for anti-gendered violence projects, and presented papers at sociology conferences. But I want to go deeper, do something else with my intellectual energy. My latest project, as some of you may know, is sociological songwriting. My hope for this project is to instill a verse or two into people’s ears so that they find themselves humming sociological insights while driving or in the shower.

Which brings me back to why I am reading the Juneau newspaper today. Janice Densham and I are performing at the Alaska Folk Festival this evening, and all but one of the songs are Anahita sociologically-infused originals. Our set is characterized as “murder ballads and love songs.” One of the songs is what I call an anti-Pretty Polly song. The Pretty Polly murder ballad tradition goes like this: A man and a woman are dating, talking about marriage, or are already married. They are just going along, when suddenly, he kills her. They are talking about their wedding day (Banks of the Ohio), going to get married (Omie Wise), simply taking a Sunday walk (Down in the Willow Garden), or going to have sex in the woods (Pretty Polly), when he suddenly turns on her and kills her. The details of the crime get pretty gory: he stabs her, drags her around by the hair, throttles her, slices off her head and kicks it against the wall, throws her in the river, shoots her, rolls her into a pre-dug grave, suffocates her with dirt, chops her up with a saber, and/or beats her with a club. The Pretty Polly characters are passive, and do little in the ballads to resist death. Polly does get down on her knees to beg Willie, her murderer, not to kill her, but to no avail. Sometimes the victim comes back to haunt the murderer, as in a 1920s version of Pretty Polly, but usually not. Many of the murders are ballad accounts of actual real murders from the 18th and 19th centuries, often folk processed to fit local circumstances. For example, there are Omie Wises (aka Naomi Wise) in the UK, NC, and WV ballad tradition.

The song Janice and I are doing is called “He Dreads Judgment Day.” The song’s narrator asks each victim why their murderer did the deed, and gives brief detail about the way they were killed. Several of the women noted are real murder victims, e.g. Sophie Sergie and Pam Mitchell Hoy. Each verse is followed by a chorus that asks “does he dread Judgment Day?” My intent in the song is to return some sense of agency, of non-passiveness to the victims. But by asking the victims why their murderers killed them, I mostly fail in this endeavor. Kayt Sunwood has helped to revive the women victims’ agency by writing a new ending chorus for the song. She transforms the narrator from being just another inquistor into a rousing Take Back the Night type of speaker and calls on all of us to end the violence. Her last lines: “Let’s end the violence. We can’t wait ’til Judgment Day. Let’s all stand together. We won’t wait until Judgment Day. No we WON’T wait ’til Judgment Day!”

About sineanahita

Alaska's fiddling sociologist
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1 Response to End Gendered Violence: We Won’t Wait for Judgment Day

  1. Marissa says:

    Robert Kowalski is actually my step dad, and I’m a gender studies student, so this is probably the most interesting thing I’ve gotten to read all day.

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