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How a Massachusetts law intended to protect sex assault victims protects perpetrators

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

Massachusetts goes further than any other state in the country in protecting the privacy of victims of certain crimes. By law, it locks away all police records of domestic violence and sexual assault. But an investigation by Ally Jarmanning of WBUR in Boston finds the law has actually made life harder for survivors and has been used to protect police and perpetrators.

ALLY JARMANNING, BYLINE: All Ann Donahue has left of her older sister, Mary Fairbairn, are memories and family photos.

ANN DONAHUE: And these are just like when we were little. There's not a lot.

JARMANNING: The photos show a younger, happy Mary, Mary with her son and daughter, Mary, at the 40th birthday party Dokahue threw for her.

DONAHUE: She had such a good smile. That's what she was. She was just happy and friendly. And, you know, she was very sarcastic and quick wit and just funny.

JARMANNING: Donahue worried about her sister, though, especially Mary's decades-long marriage to Greg Fairburn. And on October 19, 2019, Donohue's worst fears came to pass. Greg called 911 and told police he killed his wife. Officers found Mary dead in the bedroom. It wasn't the first time Groton police had been to the house, according to interviews and documents reviewed by WBUR. And just the week before Mary died, police were called to the couple's secluded Massachusetts home twice. There were no arrests. Both times, Groton police left Mary alone with Greg.

DONAHUE: They didn't kill her, but they were negligent in every step of the way in protecting Mary.

JARMANNING: We don't know what police did or didn't do because Groton police won't release any records of the calls or say what happened when police responded. Instead, they cite a sweeping Massachusetts law that makes all reports of domestic and sexual violence confidential. And Groton isn't alone. Across Massachusetts, WBUR found more than a dozen other homicides in the last few years where police withheld records of previous reports of domestic violence. Without the documents, it's hard to know whether police could have done more to prevent those murders.

The law was originally intended to shield the privacy of victims and encourage more people to report abuse to law enforcement. It was first passed in the 1970s to cover sexual assaults and broadened eight years ago to include domestic abuse. It was supposed to protect survivors, not law enforcement, says Laura Van Zandt. She's executive director of a domestic violence organization called REACH Beyond Domestic Violence.

LAURA VAN ZANDT: Using this law to hide how the system responded is not serving anyone. I don't see how that is serving the greater good.

JARMANNING: And the law seems to have failed to encourage more survivors to come forward. Data from the state's largest police departments found no meaningful change in the number of reports before and after the law expanded. It's actually made it harder for survivors. Many have trouble getting police incident reports about their own abuse. Mithra Merriman is an attorney who works with domestic violence survivors at Greater Boston Legal Services.

MITHRA MERRYMAN: There is a carve out in the law, and unfortunately, it doesn't always work and it often doesn't.

JARMANNING: And while survivors are running into roadblocks, police have found ways to use the law to shield themselves from scrutiny. More than 40 police departments across the state refuse to provide WBUR records of officers accused of domestic and sexual violence. Police officials say they have no choice, that they're just following the law. Still, advocates who initially supported the statute say they're alarmed. Hema Sarang-Sieminski is policy director at Jane Doe Inc., Massachusetts organization representing survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

HEMA SARANG-SIEMINSKI: We know that law enforcement shields their own. The blue wall of silence is a documented issue.

JARMANNING: There does seem to be some appetite for change. Outgoing Governor Charlie Baker and both the candidates running to replace him say a review of the law is warranted. And lawmakers have options. They could follow the lead of other states, keeping the records public while removing the victim names and identifying information. Mary's sister, Ann Donahue, says victim privacy is critical. She wants to see someone review cases like Mary's.

DONAHUE: Once that person's gone, there's no going back and filling in the blanks. And it's like a big hole that it leaves in your heart to not know the events leading up to your loved one's death.

JARMANNING: But for now, in Massachusetts, those events stay secret. For NPR News, I'm Ally Jarmanning in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ally Jarmanning