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Renée Graham

Excuse the killer, blame the victim?

A Black Live Matter protester wore a shirt with a photo of Stephon Clark during a demonstration on March 22 in Sacramento. Clark was shot and killed by police on March 18.
A Black Live Matter protester wore a shirt with a photo of Stephon Clark during a demonstration on March 22 in Sacramento. Clark was shot and killed by police on March 18.(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

ON THE DAY Jaelynn Willey’s family made the crushing decision to remove her from life support, the Associated Press ran a story about the boy who killed her. It bore this headline: “Police: Maryland school shooter apparently was lovesick teen.”

“Lovesick” is not how I would describe a teen-ager who took his father’s gun, went to school, walked up to his former girlfriend, and shot her. Another student was also wounded.

“My daughter was hurt by a boy who shot her in the head and took everything from our lives,” Melissa Willey said at a news conference hours before Jaelynn died. That boy was not a “lovesick teen,” a term that conjures visions of sad songs, regrettable poetry, and broken-heart emojis. He was a murderer who believed that Jaelynn did not deserve to exist without him.

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Whenever law enforcement and the media use sympathetic, humanizing descriptions of murderers, one thing is instantly clear: The perpetrators are white and male.

Even after a backlash against the AP, the jilted-boyfriend trope lived on. On Time magazine’s website, for instance, a follow-up story a few days later was entitled “Lovesick Maryland High School Shooter Killed Himself, Says Sheriff.”

Jaelynn’s murder was a national story in March only because of where it occurred — a high school. Prior to the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the year’s worst mass shooting had taken place at a rural Pennsylvania car wash. That shooter, who used an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle and a handgun to kill four people, had previously dated one of his victims.

Was he also “lovesick”? Or was he a “challenged young man,” as a police official characterized the 23-year-old bomber who terrorized Austin, Texas, in March, killing two people and wounding five?

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These selective excuses for white killers are infuriating — even more so when compared with how people of color are treated, especially when they’re victims of police violence. Always, the unspoken message is that African-American victims were somehow at fault in their own death.

After the Austin bomber blew himself up, “CBS This Morning” said he “was described by neighbors as a quiet, nerdy kid.” A 23-year-old is not a kid; at 12, Tamir Rice was a kid. It didn’t stop a Cleveland police officer from killing him in 2014.

In a later segment of the same episode, the CBS show ran a story report on the recent Sacramento police killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African-American shot multiple times in his grandmother’s backyard. The only information offered on Clark was that he “had prior run-ins with the law, including robbery and domestic violence.”

While true, it’s also irrelevant. Clark’s record had nothing to do with why two officers fired on him 20 times. They knew nothing about his “prior run-ins” when they killed him. Releasing Clark’s record is a tactic to justify a death that defies any reasonable explanation.

After listening to the Austin bomber’s taped “confession,” interim Austin police chief Brian Manley said he heard “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”

Alton Sterling was not afforded such compassion, and his loved ones will see no semblance of justice. Sterling was unarmed when he was shot by police in Baton Rouge in 2016; Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry recently declined to bring charges against the two officers responsible. For a New York Times story about the decision, The Boston Globe’s print edition ran this caption under Sterling’s photo: “Alton Sterling had a long criminal history.”

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Again, it reads like an implicit justification for Sterling’s death. He’s treated less as a victim than as just another black criminal who ran afoul of the law, this time with lethal results. When police kill a person of color, it’s usually the victim’s history that’s put on trial instead of the person who pulled the trigger.

Victim-blaming is also the case with domestic violence. If a woman or girl leaves the man or boy who later kills her, it’s inferred it’s not entirely his fault. How else does a 17-year-old believe that murder is an appropriate response to a failed relationship?

Calling white men “lovesick” or “challenged” when they murder or maim is an enabling excuse. It also fosters a dangerous narrative about the color of criminality.

As survivors bury their dead, they are left to wonder when law enforcement officials and the media will check their sympathy for the devil.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.