f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

January 4, 2009

let’s not overlook the death of Melissa Batten

Filed under: lawyer news or ethics — David Giacalone @ 2:25 pm

. . . Melissa “Missy” Brooks Batten (1972 – 2008) . . .

It was no surprise to find Harvard Law School graduate Barack Obama [HLS ’91] on the cover of the current issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin, when it arrived last month.  I was surprised, however, while belatedly thumbing through the Bulletin on New Year’s Day, to read about Melissa Batten, a 1997 HLS graduate.  Melissa wasn’t featured because she left her job as a public defender in 2002 to become a successful video game developer for Microsoft. Instead, her story is briefly sketched in the following In Memoriam item:

Melissa C. “Missy” Brooks Batten ’97 of Renton, Wash., died July 29, 2008. She was a developer in Microsoft’s games division in Seattle. Prior to moving to Washington, she was a public defender at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office in North Carolina, where she handled hundreds of cases and worked in the domestic violence court. On July 21, Batten filed an emergency temporary protection order against her husband. Eight days later, he killed her before killing himself. Donations in Batten’s memory can be made to the Eastside Domestic Violence Program in the Seattle area: www.edvp.com.

That’s right: A former assistant public defender who specialized in domestic violence cases was shot to death by her estranged spouse a week after obtaining an order of protection. I winced when I first read Melissa’s memorial blurb, feeling both the loss and the irony of her violent death.

Then, as a blogger, I thought: “Why haven’t I heard about her death in the blawgisphere?”  Since my failure to get around to any but a tiny number of other weblogs is virtually legendary, I thought the fault might be mine and Melissa might have indeed received coverage on law-related websites.  Searching this morning, however, I found quite a few posts at gamer blogs (see, e.g., here and there), but only one on a “blawg” about Melissa’s death: Skelly’s pointer at Arbitrary and Capricious to a Dagblog post by the anonymous Articleman, who I have since discovered is a Chicago lawyer and Harvard Law graduate.  Articleman‘s post [“The Murder of Melissa Batten: Please Give and Help Prevent Domestic Violence,” Dec. 21, 2008] is a thoughtful essay well worth your time (and extracted below).

The legal community needs to mourn and remember Melissa, and this post is our small effort to that end.  For news reports of her gunshot murder by her husband Joseph Batten, see this Seattle Times article; an emotion-filled SeattlePI column, and a post at Maholo.com with Fast Facts about Melissa.  As Dagblog recounts, “On July 29, he confronted her in the parking lot of the Redmond apartments where she had moved, and took her life with eight shots from a 9 mm handgun, before dispatching himself with one.”  Like Articleman, I think it is especially important to note that:

  • Melissa Batten spent a significant part of her legal career helping the disadvantaged, rather than cashing in on her prestigious law degree.  Seattle PI columnist Robert Jamieson, Jr. wrote:

“Batten left a blue chip private firm in Charlotte to work for the poor and disenfranchised at the defender’s office.  . . .

” ‘A great lawyer, a zealous advocate for justice,’ Kevin Tully, chief public defender for Mecklenburg County, told me. ‘Just an enjoyable person’.”

  • She left law to pursue her creative muse and apparently did the job with enthusiasm and success.
  • Domestic violence doesn’t just happen to the poor and uneducated, it “happens in all kinds of families and relationships. Persons of any class, culture, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, age, and sex can be victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.” (see domesticviolence.org for more information, and statistics on DV, from the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence, which offers training and brings together resources for lawyers who work in the field)

Articleman offered many insights and sentiments in his piece that I’d like to think I might have said, with a bit more time and effort.  But, I’ll borrow some of his well-phrased words:

“You can hear platitudinous journalistic tongue-clucking that the victim was a domestic violence lawyer whose knowledge couldn’t save her, who put her faith in a piece of paper that couldn’t save her.  I’m sure that Missy Batten was a very, very smart woman who knew that she was acutely at risk, and knew that brains and paper weren’t a cure-all.  The most important general wisdom I saw in the many articles about her death was this:  ‘a special shelter may be the only way to keep a woman…safe.  Unfortunately, because of funding issues, there are more people in danger than there are safe places to house them.’

“I wrote recently about the importance of bearing witness to suffering around us, especially in this holiday season, especially if we’re ok.  Barack Obama’s election was personal to me, in part because of my pride in having attended his school, and my agreement with his values.  Missy Batten’s death is likewise meaningful to me:  she tried to do good, and tried to create, two deeply important things.

“There are many, many people in danger of domestic violence, and not enough money, or lawyers, or paper, or jails, on the side of keeping them safe.  . . .  Giving to the EDVP, we can do those two things, things that we talked about so much in Campaign 2008.  I hope you choose to give too.”

The death of any young person is always sad. It seems especially sad when the person is talented, likable, and highly educated.  With young lawyers, an early death tends to be due to an illness (far too often breast cancer) or an auto accident, as opposed to murder.  We certainly don’t often think about domestic violence reaching our profession, but when it does it should motivate all of us to work harder to help prevent domestic violence throughout our society, and to protect its potential and actual victims, through better procedures and education.  I hope Melissa’s death will move more lawyers to assist that cause with their time and money.

. . Click to see Melissa’s video for the newest Banjo-Kazooie game ..

thin winter coat
so little protection
against her boyfriend

. . . . . . by John Stevenson – Quiet Enough (2004)


  1. I believe the statistics are something like 1 in 4 women are victims of domestic violence. It was certainly my experience when I was once (fortunately briefly) in a similar position. I was shocked at how many women, when I talked about what had happened to me, had suffered. It crosses age, class, race barriers.
    Did this woman become a domestic violence lawyer because she was already in that situation and had sympathy? Because it is always easier to stick up for others than yourself?

    Comment by msmarmitelover — January 5, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  2. Thanks for writing, Ms. M. I hope and believe that the one in four number includes verbal and emotional abuse (which is bad enough), but there are a shockingly high number of cases of physical abuse.

    I have seen no information suggesting that Ms. Batten was experiencing domestic violence before becoming a public defender. As a public defender in DV Cout, she might have been representing accused abusers.

    Comment by David Giacalone — January 5, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  3. The problem with stats like 1 in 4, lumping in so-called “emotional abuse” and “verbal abuse,” is that you take the meaning away from the word abuse altogether.

    When you lump yelling at someone or emotional blackmail or other non-violent acts in with violence (who hasn’t had a yelling match with a spouse or girl/boyfriend?), you not only cause people to question the statistic, you cheapen the word and the concept of abuse so much as to cause people to question and fail to stop the violence.

    People overuse the word “abuse” in an attempt to gain an emotional lever, but a side effect is that anyone who has ever done anything that could be construed as abusive under the broadest possible definition (let alone been inappropriately accused of being abusive) stops listening when the hear the word after that.

    Comment by Jim In SF — January 5, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

  4. You make a good point, Jim, and one that I’ve made in the past in connection with many causes and interest groups — and in the related context of the misinformation about the Super Bowl and domestic violence. However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that domestic violence leaves far too many people living in fear, badly injured, or murdered. And, that far too many lovers and spouses — especially men — use intimidation to try to control a relationship.

    Comment by David Giacalone — January 5, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

  5. I wanted to say “Thank-you” for taking the time to bring this tragedy to the forefront of the legal community. It is so important that people know how prevalent Domestic Violence is in our society. I try to stress to people that it knows no financial boundaries and it can move from mental abuse for years to murder in days. Missy had told me shortly before he murdered her that once she was able to get her life back in order she intended to work with domestic violet shelters to help raise money, give support and/or whatever she could do. Thank-you again for your help! This world has lost a truely bright light. We miss her more than words can express.

    Comment by Ellen-Missy's Sister — January 30, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

  6. You are very welcome. Thank you for taking the time to leave an important message. Losing a sibling in this way must hurt terribly and I can only offer this feeble demonstration of sympathy.

    Comment by David Giacalone — January 30, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

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