Violence in the home is as much a public concern as violence on Main Street. Yet seemingly educated people still jerk their privacy-rights knees in cases like this – even though there’s nothing “private” about a crime scene, which in this case happens to be Rihanna’s face.
One pundit after the next has complained about the release of a photo showing pop star Rihanna’s battered face; a picture taken by police in connection with domestic violence charges against Rihanna’s superstar boyfriend, Chris Brown.
“It’s embarrassing to Rihanna,” one said. “And such a violation of her privacy.”
Actually, it is NOT embarrassing for Rihanna. It is, however, shameful for the perpetrator. And it isn’t a violation of anyone’s privacy, because crime is not a private matter.
Violence in the home is as much a public concern as violence on Main Street. Yet seemingly educated people still jerk their privacy-rights knees in cases like this – even though there’s nothing private about a crime scene, which in this case happens to be Rihanna’s face.
Crime is investigated with public dollars and prosecuted by the public’s lawyer in a public venue. Which means all the documents related to the investigation are “public records” – available to anyone upon request, simply for the asking.
Sure, there’s an exception that allows material to be withheld when there’s an ongoing investigation, which might explain why the prosecutor kicked the case back to cops for further investigation. But usually this exception is invoked to prevent the real culprit from learning about the evidence and then using the information to evade authorities. Clearly, there’s no such worry here.
And it’s true the accused can argue that disclosure of too much evidence might lead to an unfair trial. But by the time the picture was released, it had already been reported widely that Rihanna was badly beaten. If releasing the photo might lead some to prejudge the case, they can be excluded from the jury when the time comes.
To invoke the “it’s not fair” argument, the defense should first have to shut up and stop trying to influence the potential jury pool to feel sympathy toward the accused. Brown’s PR people have already issued a statement apologizing, and announcing Brown would seek treatment and advice from his pastor. (Do PR firms actually get paid to suggest such drivel?) So long as the defense spin machine is grinding out propaganda, Brown cannot complain about the disclosure of evidence. The right to a fair trial in a court of law does not include a right to distort the truth in the court of public opinion.
When the defense does attempt to manipulate public opinion, law enforcement officials should respond immediately with leaks of the truth.
I’m not saying Rihanna doesn’t feel sad about the picture coming out – but if I were her lawyer, I’d encourage her to be pleased, not only because other battered women won’t feel so bad when their truth is known, but also because what Brown is accused of doing is a very big deal – and now the public can hold the prosecutor accountable if Brown tries to plea bargain down to minor charges by suggesting that it was “only a little bit of shoving.”
It’s too bad the media and the rest of us focus more attention on celebrity violence than the scads of abuse taking place in the homes of regular people. But while more needs to be done, we can also celebrate the fact that paying attention to just one famous case can change how we feel about domestic violence. Rihanna’s battered face is now the symbol of a mostly silent epidemic – in a nation of laws that have never effectively redressed violence against women. So if star-gazing means the tide rises for all women – then let’s gaze! But let’s make sure we’re gazing at the truth – and not some PR-machine’s version of reality, bought and paid for by yet another wealthy bad guy.
Patriot Ledger contributor Wendy Murphy is a leading victims rights advocate and nationally recognized television legal analyst. She is an adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston and radio talk show host. She can be reached at email@example.com