Brian Laundrie’s death isn’t what we should care about in the Gabby Petito case

The reaction to Gabby Petito’s death and the manhunt for her partner told us a great deal about gender violence – and how the public still so often minimizes and defends it

Kathleen N. Walsh
New York
Friday 22 October 2021 10:22
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<p>Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito </p>

Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito

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The FBI confirmed on Thursday that the human remains investigators found in a Florida park were those of Brian Laundrie, ending a weeks-long manhunt that has consumed the attention of internet sleuths, true crime obsessives, and actual law enforcement. My honest reaction?

Who cares?

Laundrie was suspected of murdering his fiancée Gabby Petito, whose death was ruled a homicide by manual strangulation. If Laundrie was indeed guilty, are we to consider his death something like justice? Or, having died before he could be formally charged, convicted, and sentenced, does this mean he has evaded justice? Been denied it? Does it matter?

I would never attempt to speak for Petito’s family or loved ones. But for me and, I would argue, the rest of the otherwise unaffiliated internet — no.

If the massive amount of public attention generated by Petito’s murder served a purpose, it was to create a window into the dangerous reality of domestic abuse, violence against women, and police indifference. It prompted vital conversations about whose disappearances society considers worthy of attention and who we are content to ignore.

But the moment we turn our eyes from the victim to the fate of her alleged murderer, we abandon the important conversations and create lurid drama out of an individual tragedy. What happens to Laundrie now is of no importance to anyone not personally connected to the murder. What matters is what Laundrie did when Petito was still alive.

Maybe if Laundrie had been found alive and officially charged with her murder it would have been an opportunity for the justice system to confront its own flaws and begin to take violence against women more seriously. But I doubt it. It would more likely have continued to spiral into nothing but cheap entertainment on CourtTV, and Petito would still be dead. There is no righting this wrong. I would rather direct my focus to other matters — to the other missing and murdered women who haven’t made the nightly news; to the police officers who confronted Laundrie and Petito about their domestic dispute and failed to protect her; to the several other unclaimed human remains investigators found while hunting for Laundrie.

But there is another, perhaps stronger, certainly darker, reason I don’t want to care about Laundrie’s discovered remains. I worry that his death will somehow soften the impact of Petito’s. I worry that it could engender sympathy for him, or prompt a Romeo and Juliet framing of, “what a tragedy for everyone”. This is not the story of two volatile, mentally ill young people whose rollercoaster relationship ended in their mutual deaths. For all the rapt attention it’s gotten, the true story is far more banal and commonplace. Someone, quite possibly her fiancé, strangled a woman to death with their hands.

All too often, domestic abuse is given a “both sides” framing, described as “tumultuous” or “fraught”. But men are rarely murdered by their intimate partners. A Violence Policy Center study indicated that nine out of ten women murdered by men in the US in 2018 knew their killer, and 63 percent were wives or intimate partners. A study published by BBC indicated similar results in England and Wales, where the majority of female victims knew their killer, usually an intimate partner. And as feminist writer Moira Donegan outlined in an article in The Guardian, half of domestic abuse victims are strangled at some point. Once an abuser has strangled his victim, the likelihood that he will do so again rises tenfold, and the likelihood that he will murder her rises eightfold.

In addition to the perverse online forums in support of Laundrie that have already sprung up on Reddit, other commenters on the internet have begun speaking about the couple’s “volatile” relationship. One Twitter user who appears to believe that Laundrie is innocent said the couple were “always volatile” and “into macabre stuff”. Reports show that a park ranger who responded to the domestic violence call told Petito her relationship seemed “toxic”. Said the Laundries’ lawyer, “This is a tragic event, a series of events at this point two families have been destroyed, two young lives have been lost & it’s just a tragedy all around”. Many others have said the same.

There was never going to be any real justice for Petito. If I sound like I’m angry, it’s because I am. Maybe it’s cruel to say and maybe it’s just my rage talking, but here it is: I don’t care that Brian Laundrie is dead.

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