Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Preventing domestic violence

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Bryan Porter in his office at the Alexandria Courthouse. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. On Oct. 24, the City’s Domestic Violence Intervention Project is hosting the Silent Witness Vigil, an event that creates a space of healing through a visual memorial to those lost to domestic homicide. It is my privilege to be asked to speak at the vigil. Given the gravity of the occasion, I felt it would be appropriate to provide a preview of my remarks in this month’s column.

On March 25, 1996, a little after 6 a.m., Alexandria resident Karen Mitsoff was shot and murdered in her Parkfairfax condominium. Her assailant was her former boyfriend, who broke into her residence and killed her because of her decision to end their relationship.

In addition to being an Alexandria resident, Karen Mitsoff was an educator. She spent her professional life teaching young children to be good citizens and better people. She was kind, caring and intelligent.

I remember her. She was my kindergarten teacher.

I don’t recall many details about Ms. Mitsoff; after all, I was five. If I concentrate, I can faintly remember her laugh. I remember the sparkle in her eyes. I have a distinct memory of her talking to me and telling me I was special.

Thank you, Ms. Mitsoff, for teaching me to read.

In a jarring chronological bookend, on Sept. 23, 2019, an Alexandria jury convicted a man for murdering his girlfriend in a case I prosecuted. The facts were horrendous: After years of verbal and emotional abuse, the assailant put a gun in his girlfriend’s mouth and pulled the trigger. Despite the passing of 23 years, the motive for this vicious act was familiar: the defendant’s anger at his girlfriend’s desire to end their relationship.

Of course, these two tragic attacks are merely symbolic of the hundreds of acts of intimate partner violence that occur every year in our community. Thankfully, few domestic attacks rise to the level of homicide but each one assails the dignity of the victim. Over my lengthy career in law enforcement, much progress in the fight against domestic violence has been made. However, as the number of domestic assault and strangulation cases under my office’s responsibility attests, we still have a great deal of work to do even in our city.

Why does it seem familiarity so often breeds contempt? Why is it that so many abusers lash out physically at the people they purportedly love? While substance abuse, anger issues and jealousy play a part, my experience leads me to believe the root cause of most acts of domestic violence can be distilled into one word: control.

Or, more accurately, a lack thereof. Domestic abuse often begins with verbal attacks that are accompanied by, or soon morph into, emotional abuse or controlling behavior. So long as the abused party accedes to whatever limits or restrictions their abuser mandates, the relationship may endure – albeit with frequent flare-ups and angry arguments. But the day the victim pushes back, the day the victim asserts herself or the day she ends the relationship is perilous. For it is then that the potential for assaultive behavior is at its highest.

We are blessed to live in a city that cares about ending domestic violence. DVIP is a coordinated community response that is comprised of a myriad of city agencies. DVIP seeks to increase community awareness of the issue, to see that abusers are held accountable for their actions and, above all else, to ensure survivors of domestic violence receive the requisite protection and services. The city employees and volunteers who staff DVIP are dedicated professionals who are always look- ing for additional help. If you would like to volunteer for the project or make a financial donation, please go to: www.alexandriava.gov/ DomesticViolence.

The Silent Witness Vigil is open to everyone. Please join us in Market Square at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 24. There will be a short program followed by a reception.

The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.

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