The boy’s grotesquely swollen face was turned away from the camera’s gaze. The first instinct was to close your eyes. But the black and white photograph, projected onto a 12-foot high screen, demanded you not turn away.
The image came at the end of a Victim Impact panel at the Salt Lake Community College Sandy campus on Jan. 16, 2008. As part of their probation agreement, 40 domestic abuse offenders paid $100 each to sit through a 90-minute presentation by victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, and social workers expert in the field.
The panel takes place every three months. It’s run by Western Corrections, a company established in Sandy in 1980. Western Corrections operates in seven western states and provides educational courses designed to deter offenders from repeating their crimes.
Company founder Jeff Scott said defendants come to his panels feeling highly defensive. But the emotional impact of what the victims have to say can topple some of those defenses. Some young men and women—judging by that night’s intake nearly all in their 20s—leave the panel convinced of the error of their ways, Scott added. Because of sound problems and only one victim willing or able to talk about her experiences that night, Scott admitted afterwards it did not hit the emotional notes of past panels he had overseen.
First up to speak was Melinda Pettingill, YWCA prevention education officer. While slides of Mark and Lori Hacking were projected on the wall, Pettingill asked the probationers about stereotypes of domestic violence. “Physical violence is usually the last resort,” she said. Hacking’s brutal and much-publicized murder of his wife in July 2004 might not seem relevant to their individual cases, she added, but that wasn’t the point. “Domestic violence is usually a systematic pattern of physical, emotional, sexual and psychological abuse by one person to gain control over another.”
Pettingill concluded by noting a staggering 37 percent of women in Utah have been or will be domestic violence victims.
Next up was an example of that 37 percent. The middle-aged, high profile woman asked not to be identified. With an affecting simplicity she told the story of her abuse at her husband’s hands during a long marriage. The young man who next took the podium offered the opposite perspective. He served six months for hitting his girlfriend in the face. In jail he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. Jail time and imminent parental responsibilities, however, did not cure him of his violent ways. After he was released, he hit his father in the face and did three more months behind bars. During his second stint in the Salt Lake County lock-up his daughter was born. He’s been married to his child’s mother for five months. “It’s the hardest five months, but good ones,” he said.
Western Corrections’ Scott unsuccessfully tried to show the 60 percent male audience a DVD of a speech by a Southern Californian state coroner. While college employees tried to remedy sound problems, Scott called up the last speaker.
South Valley Sanctuary’s community outreach director, Rene Zamora Zepeda recalled his first night as a volunteer victims’ advocate. He went with the police to a house where a husband had beaten his wife. The abuser had been arrested, the victim already in hospital. Zepeda entered the house, and found the hallway littered with broken glass. In the living room the TV was on, two half-eaten burritos cooling on plates on the table. Five-year-old twins clung to Zepeda’s legs, “hungry for attention.” He took the boys to a shelter and for half an hour played with them. “I have no idea what happened to them, but I don’t think they had a very happy ending,” he told the audience.
Salt Lake Community College employees failed to get the DVD player working properly. The speech ran without sound while Scott explained the story behind the images the coroner showed. The coroner wanted to illustrate the role alcohol plays in violence. One of his stories related to a man so drunk he climbed into a lion’s den in a zoo. The result of his drunken antics appeared on screen. The animal had eaten part of his face and internal organs. His flesh bore innumerable claw and bite marks. Then came a man and a woman on their backs in a hallway. The drunken man killed his wife, then himself. Before taking his own life, he’d thrown his young son against a wall several times, killing him.
The camera closed in remorselessly on the child’s face. The unnatural angle of his head against the autopsy table suggested his neck had been broken. It was impossible to determine the child’s age because of how distended his face was.
Non-defendants sat apart from those under court order. Witnesses who were themselves parents may have pondered their own relationship with their children before such a distressing image. Few if any parents have not experienced moments when frustration and lack of self-control have led them to shout at or at times smack their children.
In its way, the panel asked those willing to look inside themselves to assess recent harsh words and raised hands, whether to a child or an adult. While only a few rows separated witnesses from defendants, at times that distance melted away as guilt cast its mantle wherever it found a troubled heart.
How effective the panel is in stopping recidivism, however, is another matter. Scott cited past participants’ written evaluations as evidence of the program’s impact. Many probationers had written that what they heard was moving and that when provoked to physically act out their anger, they had resolved to walk away. The forms required defendants pen their names to their comments. How much self-interest—in the form of portraying contriteness to the authorities—had guided their hand was debatable.
Zepeda’s wife is expecting a baby. They’ve already named her Mia Isabella. Zepeda told the audience he hoped his work would make the world a safer place for Mia. Whether the panel fulfilled his hopes, only the probationers could say.