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Disturbing data shows how often domestic violence turns deadly

Editor's Note: The phone number we referenced for the National Domestic Violence Hotline during the show was incorrect. The correct number is 1-800-799-7233. The transcript below has been edited to reflect the correct number.

A connection has long been established between domestic violence and murder. But a new report by The Washington Post uncovers just how close that link is: nearly half of women who were murdered in the past decade were killed by a current or former partner. Katie Zezima, the story’s lead reporter, joins John Yang to discuss the disturbing data and new efforts to intervene before homicide occurs.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Police have long established the connection between domestic violence and murder.

    But, as John Yang tells us, a new analysis by The Washington Post finds domestic violence plays an even larger role in the deaths of far too many women.

    The numbers are staggering: Nearly half, 46 percent, of more than 4,400 women killed in the past decade died at the hands of an intimate partner.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, Post reporters analyzed data from 47 major U.S. cities. And in a closer examination of homicides in five of those cities, the reporters found that more than a third of the men implicated in a domestic killing were known to be potential threats.

    They had a previous restraining order against them or had been convicted of domestic abuse or a violent crime, including murder. And police told The Post reporters that attempted strangulation is a strong indicator that an abusive relationship could turn deadly.

    Katie Zezima was the lead reporter of the Post team who traveled around the country on this story, and she is with us now.

    Katie, thanks so much for being with me.

  • Katie Zezima:

    Thanks for having me.

  • John Yang:

    Were you surprised at all by the volume, just the sheer numbers that you found in your reporting?

  • Katie Zezima:

    We were.

    I mean, it is a huge amount of women who are killed by their intimate partners. It is really reaching crisis level. It's nearly half. And, you know, as people have told us, it is probably much larger than what we have already found.

    So, if what we found is 46 percent, that is just a huge number of women who are killed each year by their intimate partner.

  • John Yang:

    And you told some really harrowing stories in this article.

    Is there one case in particular that sort of stands out to you that sort of typifies the issues you found?

  • Katie Zezima:

    There was a case of a woman in Fort Worth.

    Her name is Minerva Cisneros. And she arrived at the hospital one day. And she was eight months pregnant. She had strangulation marks around her neck. She had a bloody lip, bloody nose. She had a busted lip.

    And the authorities say that her common law husband abused her and was — precipitated this abuse that sent her to the hospital. The case kind of languished for a little while. And once it was — it was picked back up, the police arrested the common law husband.

    Minerva had already given birth to her third child by this point. And she decided she didn't want to pursue charges against — against her husband. A CPS case had been opened up, which alleged that she…

  • John Yang:

    Child protective services.

  • Katie Zezima:

    Child protective services case was opened up alleging that she failed to protect her two older children from the abuse that they witnessed. And she feared losing her kids.

    So she decided not to press charges against him. And a grand jury didn't indict him. About 15 months later, on Christmas morning, their house was decorated for Christmas. It smelled like the brisket she had made the night before and the pozole, a Mexican stew she had made the night before.

    Their 911 call was put in. The common law husband said: "A gun went off. I don't know what happened."

    The police got there. Minerva was shot once in the tests. She was dead. The baby was alive lying next to her. And police allege that her husband shot and killed her.

  • John Yang:

    You said you went to the hospital with strangulation marks around her neck. Police said that's really the leading indicator that this could turn violent — turn deadly?

  • Katie Zezima:

    It is, yes.

    Police — police and prosecutors and people who work with domestic violence are now looking at attempted strangulation as a huge warning sign. They say that women whose husbands or boyfriends or intimate partners attempted to strangle them have a much higher instance of being killed by that intimate partner.

    They're training people across the spectrum to look for the warning signs of strangulation, which you might not think oftentimes. There's no outward signs. But women might have a hoarse voice, or they might have bloodshot eyes, or they might be very confused because they have lost oxygen to their brain.

    So they're really trying to look for those — for those signs right now. And prosecutors in Tarrant County, knowing what they know now, they're trying to intervene earlier in these cases. They believe that a case like Minerva Cisneros', she may have lived if they'd intervened earlier.

  • John Yang:

    In the story, you say that restraining orders are often — officials or what police tell victims, that's the first step.

    But, as you say, it doesn't sound like they really result in anything.

  • Katie Zezima:

    Yes.

    So, often, this is the first step. It's the most basic step that women are told to do, which is file a restraining order. But, oftentimes, it creates a flash point in the relationship, where the abuser gets set off and gets agitated by the filing of this, and can lash out in violence that can often be fatal.

    One prosecutor we spoke with said that she tells women to file a restraining order with a backpack and a plan to get out of town, to leave when she files the restraining order. One woman who works with victims said it pretty bluntly, that it's not a bulletproof vest, that it can only protect you in so many ways.

    And really the only way that they're enforced is when the abuser violates the restraining order. And that could be a case of fatal violence.

  • John Yang:

    And you also say, as we have been talking about, so many of these cases, there have been warning signs, the cases have been telegraphed.

    Why is nothing done, or why do these things still happen?

  • Katie Zezima:

    Well, these cases are very, very complex. A lot of the times, women don't want to report their abuse, for many reasons, or they don't want to press charges.

    They love them. There's also the financial component. They can be the breadwinner in the family. They might not want to lose custody of their children. There's a myriad of reasons why women don't want to file abuse charges against their loved ones.

    A lot of times, these red flags also aren't in the public domain. They are threats behind closed doors. They are death threats. They are things that close people around the couple may know, but may not be in the public record.

  • John Yang:

    You also talked about a jurisdiction where they're trying to fix things, they're making strides.

    Tarrant County, Texas, which is where Fort Worth is, what are they doing there?

  • Katie Zezima:

    One of the things that they're doing is prosecuting cases without the victim's consent. So victims will often say, I don't want to prosecute.

    And the prosecutors will say, OK, we understand that, but we're going to take this case forward anyway.

    And they use that — they do that using evidence such as medical records, medical reports, witness interviews, that sort of thing. And they prosecute the case on the victim's behalf, even though she doesn't want to go forward with it.

  • John Yang:

    Katie Zezima of The Washington Post, thank you very much, a very disturbing story, but a very important one as well.

  • Katie Zezima:

    Thanks for having me.

  • John Yang:

    And if you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, experts suggest four ways to get help.

    Contact police. Seek medical help. Call a help line, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. The number is there on your screen. And a help line should be able to put you in touch with a domestic violence shelter in your area.

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