11.30.09

Was Tiger a Victim?

If the golf star is a victim of domestic abuse, then his wife should face jail time—as a man would.

Superstar golfer Tiger Woods tried to quell the speculation surrounding the lacerations to his face—car accident or enraged wife?—by issuing a statement on Sunday. In it, he said that he was imperfect (who knew?) and that it was all his fault. He also declared that Elin Nordegren had acted "courageously" and the matter was "private." The couple has repeatedly refused to speak to police, although an attorney provided authorities with identifying information related to the vehicle and insurance coverage.

If the rumors pan out that it was a case of domestic violence, and that Elin scratched Tiger's face and whacked his car, then it’s a quintessential "public" matter, no less so than violence in the middle of Main Street. And there's no exception for the pretty people.

If he refuses to cooperate, he could be subpoenaed to testify under oath—and he couldn’t assert his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent because it would be his wife, not he, who faces criminal charges.

Even if the couple wants it all to go away, the secrecy alone will keep the matter alive in the court of public opinion as we all speculate about whether a seemingly sweet mother of two babies beat up her mega-athlete husband.

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It's an odd scenario, but not impossible to imagine. Jackie Fryar infamously stabbed her husband, New England Patriots football star Irving Fryar, during a domestic incident in the 1980s. And while famous male athletes are rarely in the news for being victims of abuse, research shows that at least 10 percent of domestic violence is perpetrated by women against men. One controversial study even purports to prove that women are just as violent as men are—though the study is widely criticized for failing to consider that men's violence is usually far more harmful.

That most victims of serious domestic abuse are women is no excuse to go easy on the crazy few who gouge their husbands with long fingernails—or, hypothetically, take a five-iron to their hubby's property. If the real headline winds up as "ELIN WAS TEE-D OFF"!, she has to face the music.

Any other response would indulge a double standard that's unfair to men.

Imagine reading a story about a man who found out that his wife was cheating on him, and he responded by hitting her in the face and tearing up her favorite dress. Would the police shrug it off as “private”? No, he’d be treated the way cops handled Jim Brown in 1999 when the NFL Hall-of-Famer was accused of smashing his wife’s car windows and threatening to kill her. Brown's wife called 911 to report the crimes, then recanted and begged prosecutors to drop the charges. Like Tiger Woods, Brown's wife claimed the allegations were false and that Brown had done nothing wrong.

Cops and prosecutors hear these excuses all the time from battered women, but they ignore them because victims often lie to protect their abusers—which is why, in Brown's case, authorities rightly refused to back down. A jury acquitted Brown on the threat charges, but found him guilty of destroying his wife's car. He was sentenced to jail for 180 days after refusing to participate in a batterers' counseling program.

If Woods' wife committed a crime—again it’s a big if; their lack of cooperation with police forces us to speculate with hypotheticals—Tiger can't play the "privacy" card. As an eyewitness to a crime, he would be just as obligated to talk to police as an eyewitness to bank robbery because, simply put, law enforcement has a right to "everyman's evidence." If he refuses to cooperate, he could be subpoenaed to testify under oath—and he couldn’t assert his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent because it would be his wife, not he, who faces criminal charges. Under Florida law, the  "spousal privilege" wouldn’t apply because it contains a broad exception for crimes against "the person or property of the other spouse." Which means, if he didn’t answer, he could be held in contempt. And if he lied, he could face perjury charges.

Even if Woods managed to avoid directly implicating his wife in a crime, there's apt to be plenty of forensic evidence. "Malicious destruction of property" could probably be proved without Tiger's testimony. And prosecutors could use hospital records as hearsay evidence to prove the domestic-violence charge. If Tiger told the doctors that his wife attacked him, they could testify to what he said—and then use the medical records to establish the severity of his injuries. According to TMZ.com, a subpoena for Tiger's medical records has already been requested.

Of course, even if it turns out to be a case of domestic abuse, criminal prosecution is unlikely in a case of female violence against a male, particularly when the male is Tiger Woods. If we cared a little more about spousal abuse and a little less about celebrity, such a hypothetical would be resolved fairly and openly. But we don't—so it likely won't, especially since the incident occured amid accusations of infidelity. When the public sympathizes with an offender, there's less political will to file charges.

Still, the whole world is watching, and if law enforcement tanks the case to protect the interests of Tiger Woods, the public will yet again be forced to confront a legal system that, despite claims of "blind" and "equal" justice, seems designed to punish only certain "types" while protecting the powerful.

Wendy Murphy is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor who teaches at New England Law/Boston. Wendy specializes in the representation of crime victims, women and children. Her expose of the American legal system, And Justice For Some, came out in 2007. A former NFL cheerleader and visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, Wendy lives outside Boston with her husband and five children.