A Lesson In Tragedy
By Joe Webb

I have been following the story of the tragic death of Savannah Cass McMahan and the subsequent re-victimization of her family by a lazy, distracted, certainly incompetent, and probably ethically-compromised District Attorney General's office. My emotions have swung from excruciating sorrow for the young woman's family, to an almost blind fury at the notion of allowing her alleged killer to walk free. This infuriates me (fathers of daughters reading this will understand).

As I read the coverage of this tragedy and the compounding epic farse that is the criminal justice system in the 9th Judicial District under Russell Johnson, something caught my eye and it added a new dimension. Maybe this is a teachable moment in our lives. Maybe there is something important to be learned in this horror. Maybe something good can come from something so terribly bad.

The thought came reading Hugh Willet's excellent coverage of this story for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. In his story "Family critical of plea deal in shooting", Mr. Willet writes of John McMahan, the victim's father "McMahan said he witnessed the couple's frequent arguments and what he called "bullying" by Harvey." Willet goes on to quote Mr. McMahan "She said she was going to leave him several times before the shooting," he said. "I know that's why he shot her, because she said she was going to leave."

Did you catch it? Did you see the teachable moment? I'll give you a hint: The key word is "bullying" suggesting domestic violence that just didn't get addressed in time. Tragically, many don't and maybe that lesson is the silver lining here. This tragedy may have given us an opportunity to think deeply and critically about domestic violence, and our response as a community to domestic violence.

There are some things you should know:

  • Battering on women is the most under reported crime in America.
  • Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States; more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. "Violence Against Women, A Majority Staff Report," Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, October 1992, p.3.
  • Three to four million women in the United States are beaten in their homes each year by their husbands, ex-husbands, or male lovers. "Women and Violence," Hearings before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, August 29 and December 11, 1990, Senate Hearing 101-939, pt. 1, p. 12.
  • One woman is beaten by her husband or partner every 15 seconds in the United States. Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1991.
  • About 1 out of 4 women are likely to be abused by a partner in her lifetime. Sara Glazer, "Violence, Against Women" CO Researcher, Congressional Quarterly, Inc., Volume 3, Number 8, February, 1993, p. 171.
  • Approximately 95% of the victims of domestic violence are women. Statistics, National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, Ruth Peachey, M.D. 1988.
  • Police report that between 40% and 60% of the calls they receive, especially on the night shift, are domestic violence disputes. Carrillo, Roxann "Violence Against Women: An Obstacle to Development," Human Development Report, 1990.
  • Battering occurs among people of all races, ages, socio-economic classes, religious affiliations, occupations, and educational backgrounds.
  • Fifty percent of all homeless women and children in this country are fleeing domestic violence. Senator Joseph Biden, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Violence Against Women: Victims of the System, 1991.
  • A battering incident is rarely an isolated event.
  • Battering tends to increase and become more violent over time.
  • Many batterers learned violent behavior growing up in an abusive family.
  • 25% - 45% of all women who are battered are battered during pregnancy.
  • Domestic violence does not end immediately with separation. Over 70% of the women injured in domestic violence cases are injured after separation.
  • Domestic violence is not only physical and sexual violence but also psychological. Psychological violence means intense and repetitive degradation, creating isolation, and controlling the actions or behaviors of the spouse through intimidation or manipulation to the detriment of the individual. "Five Year State Master Plan for the Prevention of and Service for Domestic Violence." Utah State Department of Human Services, January 1994.
Nothing can bring this young woman back to life.

Nothing we can do or say will reduce here family's sorrow. That is up to God. There are however some concrete things that you can do:

1) Educate yourself and especially your children about domestic violence.

2) If you're aware of a situation where domestic violence is occurring, tell someone.

3) If you voted for Mr. Russell Johnson to be elected to the office of 9th Judicial District Attorney General, make a $10.00 donation to Iva's Place, a domestic violence shelter in Lenoir City, to make amends for your role in the re-victimization of Savannah Cass McMahan's family. You owe them an apology -- and you know it. I can't think of a better, more appropriate, productive, and meaningful way to express that apology.

4) Even if you didn't vote for Johnson, consider donating to the vital mission of Iva's Place, or maybe volunteer your time. They can use all the help they can get. Visit http://www.ivasplace.com to learn how to help.

5) Thank Hugh Willet and his editor at the Knoxville News-Sentinel for his tireless coverage of this story.

6) Remember how you feel right now when it is time to cast another vote for a district attorney general.