September 24, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
What would justice look like if all missing women got the attention Gabby Petito did?
An estimated 64,000-75,000 Black women and girls are missing.
The mysterious disappearance of Gabby Petito took the internet by storm. Gabby Petito’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, returned home from a heavily documented road trip without her. Because there was so much information available online, her story captivated true crime fans and led to amateurs combing through every social media post.
The fact that Laundrie, the obvious suspect, had fled authorities only added to people’s intense interest. Despite the intense media attention to the case, something many have rightly pointed out only happens if the victim is young, pretty and white, Gabby’s body was found in Wyoming and her cause of death has been ruled a homicide. As this article is being written Laundrie has still not been captured by authorities after being on the run for five days.
Police had the 911 call that reported that Laundrie slapped Gabby Petito multiple times and chased her down, but body cam footage shows the police joking with Laundrie about histrionic women and only urged the couple to spend the night apart.
Women in particular are drawn to true crime stories, especially those where other women are the victims of domestic violence, because we live with the danger of that violence in our everyday lives. Seeking out true crime stories not only provides us with tools to learn about our fears, and hope that if we learn enough we can protect ourselves, but also hopefully access the possibility of justice that in real life is sorely lacking in response to violence against women.
Domestic violence is the leading cause of physical injury to women, and more than half of female homicide victims are killed as a result of intimate partner violence. Currently 25 states have some form of “mandatory arrest” law for domestic violence but many of those laws still require the officer’s discretion to determine if there has been a domestic violence incident. A 2009 study found that in 70 percent of police investigated domestic violence incidents prosecutors decline to bring charges. When men are convicted for killing an intimate partner, they only serve 2-6 years in prison on average.
In Utah, where police responded to a domestic violence 911 call about Brian Laundrie slapping Gabby Petito, the law is written with a lot of police discretion: “If the peace officer has probable cause to believe that there will be continued violence against the alleged victim, or if there is evidence that the perpetrator has either recently caused serious bodily injury or used a dangerous weapon in the domestic violence offense, the officer shall arrest the alleged perpetrator into custody.” Police had the 911 call that reported that Laundrie slapped Gabby Petito multiple times and chased her down, but body cam footage shows the police joking with Laundrie about histrionic women and only urged the couple to spend the night apart. They had the ability to arrest Laundrie under the mandatory arrest domestic violence law, but claimed there was insufficient evidence.
Historically, true crime interest has been more prurient and lurid. It first developed in the 19th century with newspapers sensationalizing the murders of young women. They would be described as beautiful and drawn in sexualized poses in death. The public couldn’t get enough of reading about young unmarried murdered women like Helen Jewett, but the press coverage rarely resulted in convictions even when police made an arrest. Instead the men who killed these women were let off with bizarre defenses like sleep walking or accidental drowning with no water in the lungs. The “beautiful female murder victims” were all young, white unmarried women. Black women weren’t even seen as victims by society and the violence against them went unnoticed as well as unpunished.
Very little has changed in terms of prosecuting violence against women. White women, like Gabby Petito, still get the attention of the media while Black and brown women are completely ignored. Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35 percent higher than white women and over half of Indigenous women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner.
An estimated 64,000-75,000 Black women and girls were missing in the United States as of February 2020, and Black girls make up over 40 percent of sex trafficking victims. There is a crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women in this country with very little media attention. There are over 5,700 missing and murdered indigenous women nationwide and over 400 have gone missing in the last decade in Wyoming, where Gabby Petito’s body was found. It’s hard to imagine that the outsized media attention didn’t contribute to the search to find her body.
Despite the outsized media attention in Gabby’s case and the large public interest, statistics tell us she will likely never get justice. Gabby’s experience of domestic violence was still ignored by police, supporting the idea that police shouldn’t even handle domestic violence, and murdered. Gabby’s likely murderer is on the run and even if he is caught might never be convicted. Interest in her case was not out of a deep concern for domestic violence and harm to women, but instead because young, pretty, murdered white women make good tv. However, that interest still helped to find her body and give her family some answers. In some cases the media interest in missing white women can actually help us find them alive. So while our true crime obsession rarely leads to actual justice for murdered women, if we put some of our attention to missing Black and Brown women we might bring a few more of our sisters home.
Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.