On Wednesday afternoon, a bearded man wearing a wig walked into a bookstore on the Wesleyan University campus in Middletown, Conn., and fatally shot 21-year-old employee Johanna Justin-Jinich. On Thursday night, Justin-Jinich's suspected killer, Stephen P. Morgan, turned himself in to police in a neighboring town, after his own family released a statement pleading with him to do so.
In the interim, police uncovered a journal of Morgan's in which he detailed a plan to rape and kill Justin-Jinich, then go on a shooting spree on the Wesleyan campus. They also learned that the victim and Morgan had both attended a six-week summer course at New York University in 2007, during which Justin-Jinich filed a harassment complaint against Morgan. Writes Robert D. McFadden in the New York Times, "[Morgan] called repeatedly and sent 38 harassing e-mail messages. The university and the police were notified, but he had left town and she declined to press charges." Then he continues, "There was no way to foresee the sudden, nightmarish sequel."
Except that there was. No, there was no way to foresee that on the afternoon of May 6, 2009, specifically, Morgan would kill Justin-Jinich while she was at work. There's no one in particular to blame for failing to prevent the tragedy. But to say in one breath that the alleged killer repeatedly harassed the victim and in the next that no one could have seen the murder coming is to egregiously minimize the connection between stalking behavior and violence. "You're going to have a lot more problems down the road if you can't take any [expletive] criticism, Johanna," Morgan wrote in one of the e-mails. Taken on its own, that may seem like mere posturing; taken in the context of 37 other unwanted e-mails and "insulting" phone calls, it should have been seen as a threat that betrayed Morgan's frightening sense of entitlement and desire to control Justin-Jinich.
According to a January 2009 special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Stalking Victimization in the United States" (pdf), repeated, unsolicited phone calls and e-mails are classified as stalking behaviors, along with five other examples of unwanted contact. "While individually these acts may not be criminal," the authors note, "collectively and repetitively these behaviors may cause a victim to fear for his or her safety or the safety of a family member." And not without reason: the report also says that many stalking offenders commit other crimes against their victims, including identity theft, property damage, and assault. The survey on which the report was based found that 279,000 victims were injured in attacks by their stalkers, and 139,000 were attacked with weapons. And although there is no evidence that Morgan and Justin-Jinich ever had a relationship, the 1998 National Violence Against Women Survey found that "husbands or partners who stalk their partners are four times more likely than husbands or partners in the general population to physically assault their partners, and they are six times more likely than husbands and partners in the general population to sexually assault their partners." Based on that link between stalking and violence, as well as other findings from the survey, the researchers recommended that "Stalking should be treated as a significant social problem ... Given the scope of the stalking problem revealed by this survey, it is imperative that stalking be treated as a legitimate criminal justice problem and public health concern."
That was over 10 years ago. And still, we say things like, "There was no way to foresee the sudden, nightmarish sequel." Still, according to the 2009 report, "When contacted about a stalking victimization, the most common police response was to take a report ... Nearly 20% of victims stated the police took no action when contacted." Still, 49 percent of victims who file charges report being "dissatisfied with the criminal justice system's responses to their stalking incident."
While stalking is not always a precursor of violence, we have heard stories like this one far too many times to continue acting as though violent crimes, including homicide, only bear a tenuous relationship to a history of stalking. There was indeed a way to foresee the "nightmarish sequel" to Morgan's 2007 campaign of intimidation -- but until our culture and justice system actually follow that decade-old recommendation to treat stalking "as a legitimate criminal justice problem and public health concern," such tragedies will remain both predictable and, horribly, unpreventable.