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When Will We Treat All Murder Victims Equally?

Helen Ubiñas

May 21, 2009

'Buzzards," the marshal said as he looked at the growing group of reporters outside the Middletown courthouse the other day.

The man accused of gunning down Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich was due inside a third-floor courtroom. The appearance was brief; Stephen Morgan didn't even enter a plea.

But that didn't matter; not one detail of the tragic killing has gone undocumented since the pretty and promising 21-year-old student was fatally shot May 6, allegedly by a man against whom she had filed a harassment complaint.

Without a doubt, it's a story so shocking and senseless that it has sparked insatiable public interest. Say what you will about the media's penchant for sensationalism, but people are eager to learn as much as they can about the case.

Who was he, this man accused of so deliberately and brutally hunting down this young woman? Who was she, this woman whose hopeful life was so horrifically cut short?

And why — always the why.

To be sure, there are valid reasons for all the attention given to such a tragedy.

Justin-Jinich's killing was frighteningly public, at a bookstore, just off the campus of a prestigious private college.

And there was the fear sparked by Morgan's alleged threats against other students and Jews that raised the profile of the case.

All fair points.

But what of the other pretty and promising young women whose deaths get nowhere near the same kind of attention?

Does the name Ashley Peoples sound familiar? Peoples was a 22-year-old Enfield woman who was allegedly kidnapped and killed by an ex-boyfriend in August 2008.

And what about Tiana Notice? On Valentine's Day this year, the 25-year-old University of Hartford graduate student was stabbed repeatedly on her back deck in Plainville. Just hours earlier, she had filed a complaint against an ex-boyfriend she already had a restraining order against. He was later arrested.

"My ex-boyfriend just stabbed me to death," she told the 911 operator.

The similarities are striking — the apparent obsession, the intense violence.

And yet the stories about the lives and deaths of these two women of color barely equaled one day's coverage of Justin-Jinich. The New York Post covered the Wesleyan student's death as if it happened in Brooklyn. MSNBC put local journalists on air.

Maybe if an attractive black woman had a haunting picture on Facebook, the tabs would have been just as interested in them as they were in Justin-Jinich.

But maybe not.

Let me be clear here: I think Justin-Jinich's story should be told. But don't the others' stories deserve to be told, too?

Why do some lives — and deaths — seem to matter more? And isn't it time we start to change that?

When it's about missing children, there's a term for it — the "missing white girl syndrome." It's an unfortunate phrase for the even more unfortunate and unequal handling of lost lives.

Some might argue this is just a lot of unnecessary political correctness, that race has nothing to do with it. OK. But it's hard not to look at the disproportionate coverage and wonder about the color of the news.

Alvin Notice, Tiana's father, noticed.

"I certainly see the difference," he told me when we talked the other night. "Why" didn't matter so much to him. For now, his focus is on getting justice for his daughter — and other women like her.

Because all their lives, and deaths, should matter.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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